Jury finds Charles K. Landis innocent by insanity of killing newspaper editor
Staff Writer for The Press of Atlantic City
"Never before in the history of this county has a trial more important been brought before this Court. I have to tell you the story of a ruined life, of a man whose hair has been whitened by snows which never melt, whose energies are broken, whose youth and elasticity have departed under the pressures of sorrows caused by another."
- Col. William E. Potter, defense counsel for Charles K. Landis, 1876
In an era when DNA and forensic science were wild imaginings of the future, a sensational murder trial played out here that gripped the attention of people across the country.
One can easily see why: a prominent citizen -- the City of Vineland's founder, in fact -- strolled into a newspaper office one March day, infuriated at an article written about him and his wife, and fatally shot the editor.
The murder trial of Charles K. Landis in 1876 was covered in detail by newspapers up and down the East coast; and the verdict -- not guilty by reason of insanity -- would have an impact on the city for years to come.
"For one tragic moment he (Landis) made himself judge, jury, and executioner," explained Cumberland County historian Delbert Brandt. "He was never quite the same after that."
Visionary Built Vineland
To fully understand the story, one has to examine the events leading up to the shooting on March 19, 1875.
Landis, by all accounts a brilliant man, but a dreamer, had successfully founded the town of Hammonton; now in 1861, he wanted to create another town, a town where hard-working men could earn a living farming the land.
The early street names reflected Landis' vision: Pear, Cherry, Plum, Grape.
Landis even took ads out in papers out west, advertising his city in the hope of luring farmers to settle in his ideal town. Buoyed by his success in Hammonton, he felt certain he could do the same for his new town, which he called "Vineland."
But there was also a private side to Landis, historians claim. He often preferred solitude, taking great pleasure in reading Shakespeare and Dickens -- and if no other book was nearby, he would automatically reach for the Bible.
If there's any doubt to Landis' fame as a visionary, ponder this little-known fact: He once authored a science fiction novel about a trip to Mars, although it was never published.
But sometimes the solitude and introspections slipped into depression. One historian relates that Landis declared: "I often wish myself dead."
Landis and his wife suffered a devastating loss in 1869, when their firstborn son died after only a month. There were rumors of marital discord in the Landis family.
Still, Landis pursued his dream of an ideal town with a vengeance. He worked tirelessly, often fighting state officials who presented obstacles in his path and naysayers who said he would hear make Vineland the success he envisioned.
Bullet in the back of the head
One critic in particular -- Uri Carruth, editor and publisher of the Vineland Independent newspaper -- unleashed a barrage of published attacks against Landis and his flavor of politics.
Rumors naturally seemed to have gravitated toward prominent people -- and the Landis family was not an exception. It's said that Landis hinted he might have to commit his wide, Clara, to an insane asylum.
Carruth then began to make the published attacks personal; he even printed the rumor about Landis wanting to commit Clara to an insane asylum.
Although he didn't mention Charles and Clara Landis by name, everyone knew the story was about the couple.
The article, which appeared in the March 18, 1875 edition of the Vineland Independent, would be the final straw for Landis.
Reading the article the next day, Landis became infuriated. He deliberately and calmly strode into the Independent's office and, according to witnesses, shot Carruth in the back of the head.
Sensational trial in Bridgeton
The bullet still lodged in his head, Carruth would linger until Oct. 24, 1875. Landis, already jailed, stood trial for murder in January of the next year.
Court documents and newspaper articles document the testimony that captured the attention of the country. Reporters from the entire East Coast covered the trial, held in Bridgeton, before Judge Reed.
One of the witnesses -- Henry A. Wilbur, a printer at the Independent -- tells of Landis' entrance into the newspaper, how he asked to see Carruth, how Carruth headed for the composing room, and how Landis immediately followed him.
"Landis slipped after him into the composing room and I saw a flash and heard the report of a pistol, and Mr. Carruth fell," Wilbur testified.
"I heard Mr. Landis say, 'I have killed him, I am sorry; I did it in the case of God and humility; oh, my poor crazy wife.'
"he had in his hand an article which he said his wide had given him at the breakfast table that morning and that article had driven him to it," Wilbur said.
"He also said he was willing to die the next minute," Wilbur testified, "and was responsible for what he'd done."
While there was no doubt that Landis pulled the trigger, there was some uncertainty surrounding the exact cause of Carruth's death.
Since Carruth lingered for several months -- indeed, since the exact cause of death was from abscesses that formed around the bullet in the back of his skill -- the defense argument was that the actual cause of death could have been from "unskillful" probing into the wound by physicians, causing abscesses.
Dr. Joshua K. Thomas testified that the "immediate cause" of death was the abscesses, while the "primary cause, a gun shot wound."
In any case, the defense said, Landis was suffering from temporary insanity at the time of the crime. He had become delusional, depressed, talking to people who weren't there.
"He exhibited an unnatural wildness of the eye," according to one witness and would talk with "the spirit of the mountains."
He neglected his personal appearance and hygiene. He suffered from sleeplessness. Besides, hinted his lawyer, Col. Potter, Landis' grandfather was insane, and he may have inherited that gene.
Nonsense, said the state. Landis was as sane as anyone in this courtroom.
The "delusions," the prosecutor said, were actually the ramblings of a well-traveled, well-read man.
In his charge to the jury, Judge Reed carefully outlined the case and rules for the all-male jury:
"The insanity defense ... should be scanned with the closest scrutiny."
How long the jury deliberated isn't known; but when the jury finally rendered its verdict -- not guilty by reason of temporary insanity -- the furor was heard throughout the country.
The verdict penetrated local politics, with those agreeing with the verdict taking one side and those who disagreed, an opposing side. The verdict would even become a dividing point on social issues affecting the city.
Landis never the same
And while Landis was now a free man, "it's said that he was never the same," according to historian Brandt. "There was said to be a difference in his demeanor, that he always seemed on the depressed side."
It was a burden Landis would carry to his death in 1900.
"I guess there's a certain amount of embarrassment for the city by this (murder case)," said Brandt. "But people have to remember that Landis did so much. He created Hammonton and Vineland and worked endlessly for these towns right from the beginning.
As for the Carruth family, it was the last in a string of tragedies to befall the clan, Brandt said.
One of Uri Carruth's brothers was killed by lightning when he was 21. Another brother, died at age 48 when he fell on a construction site.
And the ultimate irony, according to Brandt, is that Carruth, a prominent citizen in his own right, moved to Vineland from Wisconsin, where the winters were severe.
Carruth relocated, along with his wide and five children, to the new town after reading one of Landis' advertisements, touting Vineland's "healthful climate."
Taken from The Press of Atlantic City;
Cumberland County 250th Anniversary Special - 6/28/98