Henry Colin Campbell Trial: 1929
Henry Colin Campbell Trial: 1929
Defendant: Henry Colin Campbell
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyer: Francis A. Gordon
Chief Prosecutor: Abe J. David
Judge: Clarence E. Case
Place: Elizabeth, New Jersey
Date of Trial: June 9-13, 1929
SIGNIFICANCE: A curious case in which claims of amnesia were used by a killer to demonstrate his mental instability and hopefully keep him off death row.
When the charred remains of a woman—her skull blasted by a bullet—were found beside a highway in Cranford, New Jersey, on February 23, 1929, the crime left local police baffled. For six weeks they struggled to identify the victim, until a routine circular came back from Greenville, Pennsylvania, saying that the corpse sounded very much like a local woman, Mildred Mowry, who had been missing since early February. Investigation revealed some bizarre recent developments in the life of the middle-aged widow. In August 1928, she had apparently married a 60-year-old doctor named Richard Campbell, whom she had met through a matrimonial agency. Just one day after the ceremony, Campbell had convinced Mildred to deposit her life savings of $1,000 in his bank account; then, claiming pressure of work, he took off for California.
Mildred labored to keep in touch by mail, but as the silences between letters grew longer, concern overwhelmed discretion and she set out to track down her errant husband.
And then she disappeared.
Far from being on the West Coast, Campbell had moved no farther than Elizabeth, New Jersey. He was living under his real name of Henry Colin Campbell, with his genuine wife and family, when police came knocking on his door on April 11, 1929, with an arrest warrant for murder. Campbell's claims to be a doctor were as spurious as the marriage he had entered into with Mildred Mowry, and it soon became apparent to the police that not only had they trapped a career criminal, but possibly a serial killer, as well.
Fit to Plead
When the case against Campbell came to court June 9, 1929, the first day was given over to evidence from two alienists, or psychologists, Drs. Gus Payne and Lawrence Collins, both of whom declared that the defendant, although clearly affected by his morphine addiction, was legally fit to stand trial.
This went to the heart of the trial: for at no point did Campbell attempt to deny that he had first shot and then burnt Mildred—the murder weapon, a. 38 automatic, was recovered from his home—only that he had no recollection of having done so. Prosecutor Abe J. David ridiculed this as nonsense and read aloud a confession made by Campbell shortly after his arrest, in which he admitted killing Mildred to conceal his bigamous marriage. David also offered into evidence 17 letters written by Campbell to the murdered woman. Together, they formed a heartless catalog of deception and manipulation, a clear blueprint of the way in which Campbell traded on Mildred's loneliness and vulnerability to line his own pockets. And, said David, when the hapless Mildred eventually ran Campbell to ground and confronted him about the situation, he had shot her.
Guided by defense counsel Francis A. Gordon, Rosalie Campbell, the defendant's genuine wife, fought hard to save her beleaguered husband. In moving terms she described his downward spiral, telling how life had been "wonderful always" at first, but after moving from Chicago to Maryland, "he began to fall. He had headaches and began to lose weight. Then he started taking something for his headaches… He took the medicine not very frequently at first, then more frequently."
During the few months prior to the murder, she said, Campbell's nervousness and irritability appeared to be building toward a peak, and for no apparent reason he had begun carrying a gun.
When Campbell took the stand he looked like a man at the end of his tether. Small and shrunken, with yellow skin and straggly white hair, he trembled visibly behind rimless glasses as Gordon led him through his testimony. After repudiating the confession as a police fabrication, he claimed he had visited Mildred on February 21 in order to return the money she had lent him. First, though, he needed to raise funds, and this meant driving Mildred to several banks, none of which would help him. In between stops, he said, he told Mildred of his secret life. She told him that she did not want him to leave his wife and children. Campbell maintained that throughout the journey he kept dosing himself with drugs to "keep my nerve from going to pieces." Then, he said, everything went blank.
"Do you have any recollection of shooting Mrs. Mowry and burning her body?" asked Gordon.
"No, I don't remember doing so."
Scathing Prosecution Attack
Prosecutor David wasn't convinced. As the precursor to a blistering crossexamination, he thrust two application forms for "friendship clubs" in front of the witness. Campbell cringed when he saw them. He had filled them out before meeting Mildred, and in one, under the heading "Disposition," he had answered, "The best ever if well treated," and on both he had described his health as "good." Hardly, sneered David, the responses of a man who was seriously ill. And what about his listed preference—"Widows with no children"—evidence, surely, of someone with an ulterior motive?
Campbell lowered his head and said nothing, utterly defeated.
In closing, David went over Campbell's original confession point by point, saying how it matched in every detail the known circumstances of the crime, and he implored the jury to set aside both sympathy and any scruples they might have against capital punishment. Campbell was a thrice-married rogue, he said, with a string of convictions for fraud and forgery that had led to numerous jail terms. In his opinion, the accused man's wife and three children would be "better off without him."
Justice Clarence E. Case, in his final charge to the jury, went to the question of insanity by saying:
If the defendant was conscious of the nature of his act he cannot be acquitted. The law does not recognize that form of insanity in which the faculties are so affected as to render a person suffering from it unable to control those urges … In medicine a man who steals and cannot control his stealing is called a kleptomaniac, in law he is regarded as a thief and punishable as such. If the accused sets up a defense of insanity the burden of proof lies with him; he must overcome the legal presumption of his sanity.
On June 13, 1929, the jury found Campbell guilty of first degree murder, with no recommendation for mercy, and he was sentenced to death.
In all probability Mildred Mowry was not Campbell's first victim. Just one year earlier, a New York governess named Margaret Brown had suddenly left her job to marry a mysterious "doctor" she had met through a matrimonial agency, taking with her $7,000 in savings. Her body, also shot and burned, was found just 15 miles away from the spot where Mildred Mowry met her death. While the similarities were marked, it proved impossible to fix the blame for that murder on Campbell. Not that it mattered. On April 17, 1930, the philandering "doctor" went on his final date—with the electric chair.
Suggestions for Further Reading
Crimes and Punishment. Vol. 4. Paulton, England: BPC Publishing, 1974.
Wilson, Colin and Pitman, Patricia. Enyclopedia of Murder. New York: G. B. Putnam's Sons, 1961.