On the 2d of August, 1849, occurred a tragedy in front of Overton’s Hotel, in Palmyra, that divided the attention of the public for a time with the contemplation of the ravages of the cholera. This was the killing of one Thomas B. Hart, of St. Louis, by John S. Wise, then a clerk in the post office of that city.
Hart was gentleman of leisure, an adventurer, a soldier of fortune, a man of accomplishments, some wealth, a handsome fellow, and a libertine. He had been on Doniphan’s expedition to Mexico, and had won a name for gallantry and bravery. Boarding at the same house, with Wise and his wife, he had formed an unlawful and unholy intimacy with Mrs. Wise, a young woman of uncommon talents and accomplishments, and of considerable beauty and powers of fascination. Wise had formerly lived in Palmyra, and had a brother, Thomas Wise, then a resident of the county.
Mrs. Wise had come up to her brother-in-law’s, in Marion county, on a visit, and to avoid the cholera, then prevailing so disastrously in St. Louis. Her paramour, Hart, had followed her. Previously he had been corresponding with her not only at St. Louis, but at Palmyra, addressing her at the latter place as “Miss H. Sappho”.Being a clerk in the St. Louis post office, Wise recognized the direction on a letter to “Miss H. Sappho” as being in Hart’s writing, and, having been previously warned that all was not right, his curiosity and his jealousy prompted him to open it, which he did, and discover everything. He learned, beyond doubt, of the disloyalty of his wife, and of her liason with Hart, and ascertained that even then the latter was on his way to Palmyra to effect a meeting with her, in the furtherance of their shameful relations. Arming himself with a pistol and keen bowie-knife, the next day he took passage on the steamer Kate Kearney for Marion City, one day behind the wicked destroyer of his happiness and the robber of his wife’s honor.
Learning from the driver of the hack between Marion City and Palmyra that Hart had passed the day before and was then in Palmyra, Mr. Wise was cautious and circumspect. He made his way to the post office immediately on his arrival at the county seat, and obtained two letters to his wife from Hart, addressed to “Miss H. Wallenstein.” Mastering the contents of these, he was goaded almost to frenzy. He saw Hart seated nonchalantly under the awning of the Overton Hotel, whose guest he was while awaiting a personal interview with the guilty Cressida who was luring him to his death. Wise passed unobserved to the rear of the hotel and then made his way to the front. As he stood in the bar-room door, Hart discovered him. Wise instantly presented his pistol and fired. The ball struck Hart in the left shoulder, inflicting, a severe but not a fatal wound. Wise then assaulted Hart, and with the empty pistol struck him two or three blows over the head. Hart retreated, and Wise drew his bowie and started in pursuit. Overtaking him in the back part of the hotel Wise stabbed Hart repeatedly, making frightful and fatal wounds. In one struggle between them, while the knife was sticking in his back, Hart threw Wise to the ground; but the knife fell, Wise caught it up, and springing to his feet buried it in Hart’s body and wrenched it back and forth, and at last turned it in the wound. Hart fell, the blood spouting, from his wounds, and flowing from his lungs through his mouth in a frothy scarlet current, and was dead in a few seconds.
Wise surrendered himself, remarking as he washed the blood from his hands, “That man has hurt me worse than I have him – let me get at him again.” His examination came off in the latter part of the month, before Justices John Rice and A. W. Rush, in Palmyra, and attracted the greatest attention. The best lawyers in Missouri were present. For the State there were Circuit Attorney A. W. Lamb, the gifted Col. E. F. Richmond of Hannibal, a talented criminal lawyer of St. Louis named E. S. Blennerhassett, and Edwin G. Pratt and Judge John T. Redd of Palmyra. The defendant’s counsel were Samuel T. Glover, John I. Campbell, Thomas L. Anderson, and Stanton Buckner, of Palmyra.
The examination took place in the Circuit Court room, which was crowded with spectators – many of whom were ladies – day after clay, as the investigation progressed. The St. Louis Republican sent up a stenographer to report the proceedings, a very uncommon thing for a newspaper to do at that day, for the newspapers of 1849 were not like the newspapers of 1883. But Hart was well known and highly connected in St. Louis, and had hosts of friends, too, and the interest in the examination of his slayer was as intense there as it was in Palmyra. Many St. Louisians -were in attendance as witnesses Thornton Grimsley, Win. J. Hammond, and the clerk of the Kate Kearney, Rufas Bartlett – among the number, and others were there as spectators.
The State proved the killing as narrated, and the further fact that Hart had no weapons about him when he was slain. The defense did not attempt to disprove the facts, but introduced half it score of letters, intercepted or that had passed between Mrs. Mary Ann Wise and her companion in guilt, Mr. Hart,- to prove the fact of their sin, and then to show that Mr. Wise became of unsound mind when he learned of it, and was not responsible for what he did when lie struck down the destroyer of his happiness. These letters were of the most amatory character, but yet were couched in such language that clearly showed the writers to be persons of more than ordinary intelligence, breeding, and acquirements. (The trunks of both Hart and Mrs. Wise were broken into and some of the letters abstracted therefrom.) The epistles were as a rule lengthy, breathing in every paragraph the most passionate love and affection, and Mrs. Wise wrote to her lover sometimes in such ravishing language and abjured him so fervently to be true to her, that there seemed to be some excuse for the man that he should sin as he did and follow after his enchantress until he ran upon his death. In one letter she wrote from the house of her brother-in-law in this county, occurred this paragraph:
The part of the country where I am is very beautiful. The house is on the summit of a hill; around it rises a grove of forest trees that stretch out their arms of verdure to the dallyings of the summer breeze, and to the glowing kiss of the bright sunshine. From the base of the hill leaps out a spring of sparkling water that chants forth a song of gladness to the flowers as it glides along. When I pass it by, its brightness seems like profanity or mockery to my sad heart; for the haunt of a dryad would have no beauty for me without the sunlight of your dear smile. Absence only adds fresh fervor to my love. I think of you more than ever; you are my only theme of meditation. How often do I wander through the wildwood, where the sparkling dew adds its tender charm to the wild flower’s delicate hue, and the sunbeams paint rainbow tints upon the spray of the murmuring Fabius, as it mildly roams through the forest’s depths now biding its glassy surface beneath the drooping lily’s shade, or kissing the blushing wild rose its it stoops to lave its glistening petals in its sparkling waters. But these things I fail to note, for my thoughts are with you. I would that I were a magician – how quickly I would transport you hither. 0, Harold,* my life, my soul Come to me soon,my angel one. Come and crown me with the blessing of your presence, overshadow me with the glory of your precious self, O Harold, my priest and my king !
The result of the examination was that Wise was committed to jail to await the action of the grand jury, the justices deeming, him guilty of murder in the first degree. A few days afterward his attoneys procured a Writ of habeas corpus from County Judge Ellis, of Lewis county, had the prisoner released from confinement and admitted to bail in the sum of $10,000. Hon. John M. Wimer, afterward mayor of St. Louis, and, while a colonel in the Confederate army, killed at the battle of Hartville, Missouri, was one of his bondsmen.
At the next session of the Marion county grand jury Wise was indicted, but his arraignment coming on, he took a change of venue from this county to Monroe, and the following spring was tried at Paris and acquitted. He returned to St. Louis, and at latest accounts was living in Kansas. Mrs. Wise, the woman in the case, went back to her home in St. Louis and passed out into the great world.
*Harold and Byron were fanciful names bestowed by Mrs. Wise on her lover, whose full name was Thomas Benton Hart. He was related, distantly, to Mrs. Henry Clay, and also to Senator Benton, whose name was Thomas Hart Benton.