The Murder of Polly Peterkin


by Terry Rogers


On August 5, 1826, Col. Thomas Peterkin, a prominent Milford businessman passed away with no will. His only heirs were his two sisters, Elizabeth Jester and Mary “Polly” Peterkin.” At the time, Col. Peterkin had many land holdings and the two women shared equally in his estate which included two farms, four houses and their lots in Milford as well as several lots outside of Milford.

Polly Peterkin lived in one side of what is now known as the Marshall House on Northwest Front Street. She was 53 years old when she received her inheritance and was considered a spinster. Her sister, Elizabeth, described Polly as “homely in her person and unlovely in her manners.” Her sister also described her as “non-sane in mind and memory.” However, upon receiving her inheritance, Polly began courting a man half her age, James D. Webb.

James, who was from Maryland, was described by others as a man without “property and any settled business or livelihood.” Some called him an adventurer and Polly’s family was concerned with the courtship. James continued to profess his undying love for her and, in September 1827, Polly and James were married.

Very soon after the wedding, however, his true intentions were revealed, proving Polly’s family right about him. James began pressuring Polly to sell her inherited property to Edmund Potter for $2,000, but she resisted. James began using threats and violence, even resorting to deceit and fraud to get what he wanted. Finally, on December 8, 1827, Polly agreed to sell the property, only three months after she married James. The same day that the property was deeded to Edmund Potter, however, records show that it was deeded back to James Webb, indicating that the two men had pre-planned to swindle the unknowing Polly of her lands.

On May 17, 1828, less than a year after the marriage, James told Polly he would be gone overnight, claiming he was traveling to Georgetown for business. The next morning, Polly awoke feeling fine, sitting down to breakfast as she normally did. After finishing about three-quarters of her coffee, Polly felt a burning in her stomach and throat. She called in her maid, Sarah Ann Hays, to find out what she had put in the coffee that might be making her ill.

Sarah replied that she had added nothing unusual to the coffee, but Polly did not believe her, poured out some coffee and made the maid drink about a half cup. Immediately, Sarah began to vomit leading Polly to send for Dr. James Lofland, informing him she had been poisoned. By the time he arrived at her home, Polly was vomiting and complaining of burning from her throat to her stomach. Dr. Lofland gave Polly medication to induce vomiting, telling her that he believed she had consumed arsenic.

Sarah Sudler, a neighbor of Polly’s, rushed to the house when she heard the news from one of her boarders. She found Polly alone in the home but very ill, although Polly was able to tell Mrs. Sudler about the maid and the coffee. About six hours after drinking the coffee, Polly Peterkin Webb died.

Thomas Coursey, the coroner at the time, performed an inquest. At the proceedings, a jury of 17 men, all prominent citizens, confirmed that Mary “Polly” Peterkin Webb died on May 18, 1828 after taking or drinking poison or arsenic mixed in her coffee. An investigation ensued with Sarah eventually confessing to the Justice of the Peace, Daniel Goodwin, that “James D. Webb, on Saturday the 17th instant, came down the cellar and handed her a piece of paper, with some white powder wrapped in it.” Sarah said that there was about a teaspoonful of the white powder and that James instructed her to put the powder in Polly’s coffee the next day. Sarah said she did as she was told and that Polly drank the coffee the next morning.

Justice of the Peace Godwin also heard from Jacob Biddle that James came to him on May 16, asking him to procure six cents worth of arsenic from Wadham’s Dry Goods but not to tell the clerk who it was for. When the clerk asked, Jacob refused to say so the clerk would not give it to him. When Jacob informed James that he could not procure the arsenic, he sent him to Wallace’s store instead where he received the arsenic and passed it on to James.

Soon after, James Webb was arrested at Samuel Warren’s tavern in Fleatown, a stagecoach stop near Lincoln, rather than in Georgetown where he claimed he was spending the night. He was brought back to Milford for trial. An arraignment was held in June 1828 in the Court of Oyer & Terminer where Attorney General James Rogers prosecuted both James and Sarah for the murder of Polly Peterkin Webb.

At arraignment, James and Sarah were determined to have “feloniously, willfully and of his malice aforethought did kill and murder against the peace and dignity of this state.” However, both were found not guilty during trial due to insufficient evidence and were freed.


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