From Oct. 11, 1973:
On a fair day in September, 1817, people streamed up the steps and into the County Court House at Claverack for the trial drawing to a close was the most spectacular of the season. Margaret Houghtaling, a young woman, once pretty, but now haggard from long sleepless nights and hours of weeping, was on trial for her life.
Accused of poisoning the mulatto child of a friend, a tight web of circumstantial evidence was drawing about her. She was being defended, however, by Elisa Williams of Hudson, and the leading criminal lawyer of Columbia County, and on this day he would make his final speech to the jury. Williams was a brilliant lawyer. His practice was not confined to the county or the State, but he was frequently called to New England to try cases there.
He followed the jury he had to deal with, probing into their personalities and then carrying on his defense in a way best calculated to impress them.
His plea for Margaret Houghtaling was doubly impassioned because he believed so strongly in the innocence of the woman. The mother, who hated, and because of its color, was doubly ashamed of the child, frequently left him with Margaret when she went out.
Margaret had always taken good care of the baby.
But he was found dead and it was determined the poison which killed him had been administered while Margaret was minding the baby.
Williams pointed out that the baby’s mother had also been in the house at the time and could have slipped the child the poison, and that it was more likely she, who had so often cursed the infant and wished him never been born, had killed him. Margaret had no reason for the murder, he contended, and despite her notorious reputation, she was a kind hearted girl. But the jury disagreed. Margaret was found guilty and sentenced to be hanged.
All the long days before the execution, she sobbed and wept and cried out her innocence. Then the fateful day came and she was led out to the scaffold.
Executions in those days were public affairs and the court yard was thronged with all the morbidly curious for miles around. Margaret looked them over. Her face was red, and her features were swollen almost beyond recognition by her endless weeping. Now, however, she was calm.
This was the end. She knew it. There was no way out now.
The noose was slipped around her neck, and then, according to the custom of the day, she was allowed to address the crowd.
“I am innocent,” she cried. “I never killed anyone, much less a harmless baby. And I will prove it.” She flung up her handkerchief. “With this I will prove it.”
“I will hold this in my hand. If, after I am dead, it is still there, that means I am innocent. If it drops to the ground, it will prove my guilt. But the handkerchief will not drop.”
The executioner stepped forward and the trap door was sprung. When the body stopped swinging, the crowd surged forward and there arose a horrified gasp.
Still held firmly in Margaret’s hand was the square of white linen, her proof of innocence.
The crowd was shaken, and as the story got around, there were many now who began to doubt the justness of the sentence. But Margaret was dead.
For years there was doubt and uncertainty. And then it was finally cleared up. On her deathbed, the mother of the child confessed that she had been the one who poisoned the infant. The handkerchief had shown correctly. Margaret was innocent.