‘Cold-blooded and atrocious’ murder in Poland transfixed community

Nov. 20—In July 1900, an old man with a trembling hand carefully wrote to a friend from the state prison in Thomaston where he had lived for nearly 43 years.

“My health is fair so I work four to eight hours a day in a vegetable garden, a small one for the prison yard,” wrote George Knight, a farmer from Poland who’d been locked up behind stone walls and iron bars since his arrest in 1856 for the murder of his wife.

Calling himself a martyr, Knight had long insisted on his innocence in his regular pleas for a pardon or a new trial.

A Lewiston Evening Journal reporter noted in the fall of 1900, after reading a handful of Knight’s epistles, that “one can hardly read the words without catching the pathos of his story.”

The reporter, probably Holman Day, said the passing time had “brought upon the withered head no sunlight of freedom.”

“Still he labors and waits, with death’s hand almost upon his shoulders — waits for a reprieve! Surely, if guilty, George Knight has suffered enough. If innocent — who can redeem to him these 40 or more years?” the Journal’s writer concluded.

Neither reprieve nor redemption ever arrived.

On Dec. 9, 1900, on a Sunday afternoon, the 83-year-old Knight died.

The Journal observed that the case that put Knight in prison had been a remarkable one — and one few remembered by the time of the convicted killer’s demise.

“The judge that sentenced him is dead. His counsel is dead. The county attorney and the attorney general who conducted the case against him are dead. Dead also are the court officials, and on the jury that tried the case, the scythe of time has fallen heavily,” the paper said.

For all that, there is only one death that stands out amid the long life of the old prisoner: Mary Knight, his wife.

“One of the most cold-blooded and atrocious murders ever committed in this state,” as the Bangor Daily Whig and Courier put it, occurred shortly after midnight in the darkest hours before dawn on Oct. 6, 1856, in a little house east of Tripp Pond in the town of Poland.

There were screams and then silence.

Those rushing to help found Mary Knight, 61, a kindly woman well into her second marriage, lying on her side, covered in blood, her throat slit from ear to ear, her head nearly severed.

The shocking scene reverberated around a nation that couldn’t quite believe a farm wife in Maine could meet so vicious an end.

Knight was born Mary Polly Pratt in Hebron in 1794. She married Solomon Knight, moved to Poland, and had six children with him. She apparently had already one daughter by a previous marriage.

In 1840, though, her husband died. She was 46.

Her brother-in-law George Knight, 23 and half her age, perhaps feeling a familial duty, married her.

The Journal called him a shrewd man “and his fortune was steadily increasing” because of his business sense and willingness to work hard.

The paper said, too, that the big age difference between husband and wife proved problematic, with Knight coming to think “he could marry a younger woman if he were free.”

At the time of the murder, seven people lived in the household: Mary and George; his elderly mother, Lucy Knight; Hannah Partridge, 13, a servant; Sidney Verrill, 10, indentured until he became an adult; Harriet Jordan, Mary Knight’s adult daughter; and Dennis Bragdon, 17, who was working for the Knights. Jordan and Bragdon were away that night.

Partridge recalled that George Knight left sometime after 7 p.m. to take a load of shingles to Gray on a cart pulled by oxen. He said he’d be away until morning.

A neighbor, Israel Herrick, said Knight showed up about 8:40 p.m. to pick up the shingles. Within a couple of hours, he had loaded them up and headed off down the road.

Nobody saw him again until well after midnight when two neighbors caught up with him as he approached Gray with his load of shingles.

They told him his wife had been slain.

Instead of rushing home, Knight finished his delivery.

Accused of trying to bribe potential witnesses, hiding a bloody knife and lying about claims of how he’d spent his night, Knight was quickly identified as the chief suspect.

It didn’t help his chances that Knight indulged in “obscene jest, in frivolity and laughter” at his wife’s funeral the next day, as a legal decision from the Maine Supreme Court later noted.

Hauled before a panel of three lawyers, including Auburn’s Edward L. Little, Knight listened as Androscoggin County Attorney C.W. Goddard laid out the case against him.

The panel agreed that sufficient evidence existed to warrant holding Knight without bail until he could face trial in a few months. He stayed behind bars in Portland while construction workers finished building the Androscoggin County Courthouse and its attached jail.

Soon after the new building opened, the court transferred Knight to Auburn.

The commitment book for the Auburn jail for 1857, kept by Thomas Littlefield, the jailor, noted that Knight, a “Poland yeoman,” had been brought from the Portland jail on Feb. 7, 1857.

Charged with murder, the book noted, Knight was 5 feet, 4 inches tall, thick set and with a light complexion.

Thirty-eight days before her murder, Mary Knight handed one of her daughters a sealed letter and told her to open it upon her demise.

“I believe my husband wants to kill me,” it began, then mentioned he had sought to poison her and had seemingly planned to slice her with a razor.

George Knight clearly needed a good lawyer. So he got one.

In addition to a local attorney, Knight hired Nathan Clifford of Portland, a former congressman who had served as the U.S. attorney general and who would, not long after the trial, win appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Clifford sought to ax anyone from the jury who had read news accounts of the case, on the assumption they could not help but be biased as a result.

But the county attorney, Charles Goddard, responded, “In this community, where information on all subjects is freely circulated, it can hardly be expected that an event of this magnitude can happen without our citizens learning about it. If such information disqualified a juror, it

would be impossible to try any person accused of crime.”

The judge agreed with Goddard. Ultimately, after an appeal, the state Supreme Court sided with the county attorney and not with the future Supreme Court justice.

The trial took several weeks of painstaking testimony on everything from just how gory it is to slit someone’s throat to whether Knight’s ox cart had disturbed the dust on roads he claimed to travel.

Mainers hung on every word.

Half a century later, the Maine Bar Association called it “perhaps as celebrated a criminal trial as ever took place here.”

When proceedings ceased, the jury filed out to weigh its verdict.

It took more than 24 hours, so long that the Journal posted a notice on its door that said, “The prospect of agreement is dubious.”

But on March 10, it reported jurors, “looking pale and care-worn,” returned to the courtroom. A clerk asked, “Have you agreed on a verdict?”

Told that it had, the clerk told Knight to hold up his right hand and then asked the foreman, “Is the prisoner guilty or not guilty?”

“Guilty,” the foreman said.

Knight dropped his hand but showed no other emotion.

The Journal later reported that four of the 12 jurors initially voted to acquit Knight, but all ultimately went along with the faction ready to convict.

As a convicted killer at that period in time, Knight faced a death sentence, which opened the prospect of dangling from a noose at the end of his days.

But Knight knew that Maine had only rarely followed through on the punishment. Life in prison seemed the more likely future for him.

After his conviction, the Journal said, Knight felt “very much dejected.”

“He has eaten but little and is growing somewhat poor in the face,” it said two weeks after the trial ended. “He says nothing to anyone,” it said, and reads the Bible each day.

If he was saying his prayers, perhaps they worked.

Gov. Joshua Chamberlain, one of the Union heroes of the Civil War, issued Knight a pardon that removed the possibility of a hanging, though the governor proved less compassionate to another Death Row inmate.

Taken to the state prison in Thomaston by Mark Lowell, a deputy sheriff, Knight arrived at the only home he would ever have again on Sept. 24, 1857.

The only thing we know for sure that he missed about life on the outside was pie.

On Christmas Day 1862, the Journal told its readers that Knight had sent payment for his annual newspaper subscription from the prison.

In an accompanying note, the Journal wrote, Knight sent his respects to Littlefield, the jailor in Auburn, and to Littlefield’s wife, adding “he has not tasted a piece of pie since he has been at Thomaston.”

“The months and years, he says, seem long to him, as well they may,” the newspaper stated.

By 1879, Knight was already the longest-serving prisoner in Maine.

He lived another 21 years before illness claimed him at age 82.

In death alone, the state released him to return to Poland.

James Albert Libby of West Poland, a Second Adventist minister, saw Knight’s body back in his old hometown, apparently one of the few who bothered.

In a poem for the Journal, Libby laid out what he’d seen and thought about the infamous prisoner who left town in manacles decades earlier and did not return except for his burial in Locust Cemetery.

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