A tale of lust, greed, poisoning and murder. A shot rings out in the night… a blood curdling scream… and a high-society household is shattered. On 7 May 1827, a notorious murder resulted in two sensational trials and Albany’s last public hanging. But there’s so much more to this story – sex and intrigue, women’s roles and legal rights, social class, punishment and the law.
Historic home Cherry Hill is an Albany, New York, landmark. Originally built in 1787 for society couple Philip and Maria Van Rensselaer, Cherry Hill remained the family residence for generations, until it became a museum in 1964.
Back in the 1800s, Young Elsie Lansing Whipple, daughter of Abraham Lansing and Elsie Van Rensselaer, and the wife of John Whipple, lived at Cherry Hill.
She had eloped at 14 and married John Whipple, nine years her senior, who’d lived next door. Her husband had turned her inheritance into a growing fortune.
Elsie was apparently precocious yet immature, grumpy, highly-strung and prone to hysterics and violent shouting fits. Spoilt and used to having her own way, she fast became disenchanted with her husband and felt dominated and controlled by him.
Enter a man named Joseph Orton… Orton first saw Elsie Whipple in a tavern in Albany, where she’d gone with a girlfriend. Pretty and lively, Elsie caught his eye and he’d soon taken a job as a handyman at Cherry Hill.
His real name, it later came out, was Jesse Strang. He’d changed it after faking his own death in 1825, when he deserted his wife and four children.
Despite Elsie being married, the two began exchanging steamy love letters every day, which they passed to each other through servants, and they began a passionate affair.
Although it was practically impossible for Elsie and Strang to be alone together with so many people in the house, they did manage to find the chance for – in Srang’s own words – ‘criminal intercourse’.
But, ultimately, the only way they could be together properly, they decided, was to do away with John Whipple.
In their letters, Elsie said she would run away with Strang. He agreed, but said they’d need money. Elsie had a fortune but, by the laws of the time, it all belonged to her husband – until his death. Now Strang and Elsie set about making that happen.
Elsie conspired with the rather reluctant Jesse Strang to poison her husband with arsenic. It gave John Whipple stomach cramps, but didn’t kill him. Undeterred, Elsie and Strang spread rumours someone was out to kill Whipple over a business matter. Strang said he’d seen strange men lurking around the house.
Elsie and Strang made a pledge that if caught, neither would inform on the other and, if one were apprehended, the other would confess, too – and they’d hang together.
On 7 May 1827, armed with a rifle, Jesse Strang climbed onto a roof at the back of Cherry Hill in the dark. He shot Whipple through the lighted window. Then he went back to the house where he found it in turmoil and was told Whipple had been shot and killed. No-one in the household knew Strang was responsible and he was sent into town to fetch the coroner.
But Strang’s enthusiasm for blaming ‘prowlers’, plus the fact he’d been seen with Elsie, and spotted buying a rifle like the one used to kill John, brought him under suspicion.
And the rest of the story is all downhill for Strang…
In June, Jesse Strang confessed to the murder and told prosecutors where to find the rifle. He believed, if Elsie was convicted as well, her powerful family connections would get them both pardoned, so he tried to lay the blame on her.
Believing Elsie would be given a lighter sentence as she was a woman, Strang asked his lawyer to plant documents at Cherry Hill incriminating Elsie as the mastermind behind the plan, as he had burned the letters she’d sent him. The lawyer refused – and told Strang he wouldn’t get a lighter sentence whatever he did.
As Strang suspected, Elsie was portrayed as the victim – even though the rifle had been bought with her money, she’d removed the curtain in her husband’s room so Strang could shoot him, and she was the one who would’ve been able to poison Whipple’s tea.
But, when Strang’s lawyer and the prosecutor told him nothing he said against Elsie would lighten his punishment, he withdrew his confession.
At Strang’s trial, the district attourney – a relative of the Van Rensselaer and Lansing families – told Strang, ‘You are guilty, you must be convicted, you must die.’ The judge referred to him as a ‘serpent’ and a ‘fiend’. Thus primed, the jury deliberated for less than 15 minutes before finding the working-class Jesse Strang guilty of first-degree murder.
Three days after Strang’s trial, Elsie Whipple – the Albany blue-blood – stood trial for aiding and abetting the murder of her husband. In a four-day trial, Elsie was pronounced not guilty and cleared of all charges. After Strang finished testifying on the stand at Elsie’s trial, he was sentenced to death.
On 24 August 1827, Jesse Strang met his end in the last public hanging in Albany. The execution was botched— the fall didn’t break his neck and he swung for half an hour in what must have been agony, before suffocating.
Known at the time as the Strang-Whipple case, the murder and the two trials revealed much about the society of the time. The establishment had closed ranks to save one of their own from a public hanging.
Now in full possession of the ill-gotten family wealth, Elsie soon remarried and left town to live in Brunswick, New Jersey. When her second husband died she moved to Onondaga, New York, where she died in 1832.
So what about the supernatural fallout from the murder? It seems Cherry Hill has made it onto New York’s Top Nine Most Haunted list. An eerie spectre is said to roam the bottom floor of Cherry Hill, with many suspecting it’s the ghost of murdered John Whipple.
The spirit isn’t hostile and doesn’t seem to mind people being in the old house, but those who’ve seen it say they sense a deep anger surrounding the phantom.
And, nearby, around the Eagle Street ravine where the gallows stood, many say they’ve seen the restless spirit of Jesse Strang. He wears a robe and a hat trimmed with black, the same clothes he wore during his execution.
To this day, victim and murderer – both unquiet, still searching for peace…