William Smearman, of Huntingdon, was stabbed at a camp meeting near Newton Hamilton on Thursday while quelling a disturbance, and died soon afterward.
Daily Gazette and Bulletin (Williamsport, Pennsylvania) Aug 26, 1884
The PDF of the above article can be found HERE
HUNTINGDON, PA, Jan 18 — The case of Curtin McClain, of Orbisonia, this county, who was tried at Lewistown last week for the killing of Wm. Smearman, of this city, at the Newton Hamilton camp meeting last August, the jury at a late hour last night returned a verdict of murder in the first degree. The general expectation was that the verdict would be of a less degree.
The Indiana Democrat (Indiana, Pennsylvania) Jan 15, 1885
Escaped from Mifflin County Jail.
William Prindle, of Belleville, held for horse stealing; Ben Taylor, a negro, held for disorderly conduct, and two Germans, charged with highway robbery escaped from the Mifflin county jail, at Lewistown, last night. The two first named have been retaken, but the Germans are still at large. Curtin McClain, under sentence of death for the murder of William Smearman, had an opportunity to escape with them, but refused to go.
Daily Gazette and Bulletin (Williamsport, Pennsylvania) Aug 13, 1885
Gov. Pattison of Pennsylvania has fixed the 19th of November next for the execution of Curtin McClain, under sentence of death for the murder of William Smearman, in a brawl at a camp-meeting last year.
The Daily Northwestern (Oshkosh, Wisconsin) Sep 24, 1885
McClain to be imprisoned for Life.
The pardon board held a secret meeting on Thursday last, at which the members reviewed the new evidence in the Curtin McClain case, convicted of murder and sentenced to be hanged. At noon they decided to recommend a commutation of the death sentence to imprisonment for life. They are all of the opinion that he committed the act, but that it was not done at a time to justify a verdict of murder in the first degree. The action of the board knocks out the decision of the supreme as well as the lower court and the jury.
The Indiana Democrat (Indiana, Pennsylvania) Nov 5, 1885
MANY CASES HEARD BY PARDON BOARD
By Associated Press.
Harrisburg, May 17. The Board of Pardons recommended pardons today for Curtain McClain, of Orbisonia, serving a life sentence in the Western penitentiary for murder; John Kelly, of Susquehanna, voluntary manslaughter; William H. Trout, of Lebanon, larceny; J.C. Fox, Allegheny, misdemeanor; John Keller, Allegheny, larceny.
The board refused to commute to life imprisonment the sentence of Frank J. Krause, of Allentown, and commuted that of William Hinchliffe, of Philadelphia.
Daily Gazette and Bulletin (Williamsport, Pennsylvania) May 18, 1900
OLD LANDMARK TO GO
The deal was closed late Saturday for the sale of the Newton Hamilton camp meeting grounds to the McVey Real Estate Company, for $8,000. The purchase includes the buildings and grove of virgin white oak timber, which will be cut and converted into lumber and the plot of ground sold as building lots.
The plot has been the site of annual camp meetings of the Methodists of the Juniata valley for half a century and was one of the great show places of the valley. In fact it was often a grave question whether the good done at these sessions overbalanced the evil until 1882, when Curtin McClain, of Orbinsonia, killed William Smearsman, of Huntingdon, with a butcher knife in a drunken brawl on the grounds, after which it dwindled to almost nothing. Of late years it has been used chiefly as a summer resort, the cottages being rented for the summer.
Clearfield Progress (Clearfield, Pennsylvania) May 6, 1920
THE TRAGEDY OF THE CAMP GROUNDS
By ALBERT M. RUNG
820 North 16th St., Harrisburg, Pa.
Hugh Brown, we are told, obtained a warrant for a tract of land in 1762 upon which the borough of Newton Hamilton is situated, but apparently some attempt at settlement was made shortly as the name of Muhlenberg was given to the locality back in Provincial days. The record shows that after Brown’s death the land then passed to Margaret Hamilton, as she was assessed with sixty acres in 1783. Probably the name was changed to Hamiltonville about this time, then to Newton Hamilton about 1828 when the locality saw boom times by construction of the Juniata Canal. In that year the settlement is said to have consisted of but four log huts, but erection of a number of inns, stores and homes soon followed.
Camp Meeting Grounds Established 1872
A hundred and ten years after Brown’s warrant a stock company was organized with a capital of $16,500 for the purchase of thirty-six acres of land nearby and erection of suitable buildings thereon for the purpose of holding annual camp meetings. Thus the
Juniata Valley Camp Meeting grounds came into existence.
These meetings, which were held for ten days each August, always drew a heavy attendance from all parts of Pennsylvania, and on Sundays excursion trains were operated from such distances as Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, when thousands of visitors crowded the village and camp grounds.
Unfortunately, many who came had no thought of attending services held upon the grounds and a lawless and vicious element who became intoxicated, caroused and insulted women and children and defied all attempts to enforce law and order, was always certain to be in town.
Huntingdon Man Was Murder Victim
On August 21, 1884, a group of young men from Orbisonia came to Newton Hamilton under the influences of liquor and continued indulging to such an extent that all became exceptionally boisterous and belligerent. Soon afterwards they were observed starting from the “sheep-pen” (an enclosure built near the station to permit control of crowds in boarding trains) in pursuit of some young fellow who dashed towards the woods in an effort to escape. The young man was William Smearman, of Huntingdon. The cause of the difficulty was never explained fully and subsequent developments showed that Smearman bore an excellent reputation in his home town and had never engaged in altercations of any kind. However, he was apparently overtaken and his lifeless body, found soon afterwards, indicated he had been stabbed to death.
Undeniable evidence was promptly uncovered, pointing to Curtin McClain of Orbisonia as the slayer, and Constable McElhone and Editor B.E. Morrison of Newton Hamilton arrested McClain at his home on the following day. En route to Lewistown, McElhone and Morrison found it necessary to leave the East Broad Top train approaching Mount Union and proceed a short distance along the Pennsylvania Railroad, where an eastbound train was instructed to take them on board, as it was feared McClain would be lynched upon arrival in Mount Union. With the prisoner lodged in jail at Lewistown, Sheriff Garett departed the next day for Orbisonia and arrested three of McClain’s comrades who were implicated in the crime.
The murder of Smearman, occurring upon grounds set aside for religious activities, came as a distinct shock to the people of Pennsylvania as many papers of the state had carried a daily account of proceedings at the camp grounds by reason of unusual interest manifested by their readers. The tragic affair came on the closing day of the season, causing some speculation as to whether the annual event could survive and if the terrible happening would lead directors of the association to announce its abandonment.
McClain Found Guilty; Sentence Commuted To Life Imprisonment
McClain’s trial before Judge Bucher in Lewistown in January, 1885, brought out that Smearman had left a widow and two small children, the youngest but a few months old, and the accused had made a confession which his attorneys tried to have expunged. The district attorney was aided by R.M. Speer of Huntingdon. The jury, after being out many hours, returned a verdict of murder in the first degree against McClain.
A request for a new trial by attorneys Andrew Reed and F.H. Culbertson was refused by Judge Bucher on March 26. An appeal was taken to the Supreme Court (the Superior Court had not been created), who likewise refused the appeal in June 1885.
Various attempts were then made to have the Board of Pardons review the case for the purpose of commuting McClain’s sentence to life imprisonment — Governor Pattison had set the date of execution for November 21, 1885 — and in this they were successful.
The following excerpt is taken from the Board’s findings:
“The evidence discovered since the trial and sentence presents a case not free from difficulty, and while the new evidence serves in some degree to raise a doubt as to whether the killing was not in a conflict under great excitement and hot blood, and before reason had sufficient time to resume her sway, it does not raise that character of doubt that if we were sitting as jurors would require us to acquit the prisoner or even to reduce its degree, but on the contrary, the weight of the evidence submitted still leaves us with the belief that the prisoner inflicted the fatal wounds, and that he is a man so reckless of the rights of others as to be dangerous to the peace and order of society. But remembering that we are not to overlook the fact that a refusal by us now to act would consign the prisoner to death, we feel that at such a time and under all the circumstances of merciful exercise of our jurisdiction, to recommend the commutation of his sentence to that of imprisonment for life.”
It will be noted that the Board of Pardons, while finding little to justify commutation for McClain, did not wish to assume responsibility for his execution. Smearman, it was claimed, had struck McClain in the mouth, thereby arousing the latter’s anger which led to the slaying. Such an alibi would have appeared weak indeed against the fact that McClain had purchased the knife which was used to kill Smearman, just the day before in Orbisonia. This fact showed beyond all doubt the vicious intention of the slayer, who deliberately sought a quarrel.
Tragedy Claimed Another Life
The tragedy had claimed the life of another, however. Two months before McClain’s sentence was commuted Henry Smearman, aged 27, died from grief over the loss of his brother. He also resided in Huntingdon and likewise left a young widow and two daughters.
McClain was taken to the Western Penitentiary with previous assurance by his friends that good conduct would greatly aid his chances for a pardon. The writer is unaware if any such efforts had been made before 1896, when, according to the Pittsburgh Times of January 4, a determined effort was started in McClain’s behalf by James M. Place, a publisher from Harrisburg, who was said to have been a friend of the McClain family.
According to the Times, Place claimed his search for evidence during the intervening ten years disclosed that McClain had not committed the murder; that he was not even in any fight upon the camp grounds; the slayer was a person who had promptly left the country and he (Place) would furnish the name of the guilty one. Place’s statement brought a quick response from Editor Morrison, editor of the Newton Hamilton Watchman, previously recalled who said:
“The statement (Place’s) of McClain is pure fabrication. ****Curtin McClain bought the butcher knife, was seen with the butcher knife in his possession on the steamboat at Newton Hamilton and on or near where the murder was committed. And McClain was proven to be the man who started the fight. Furthermore, McClain confessed to the writer, who was one of the officers that brought him from Orbisonia, that he killed Smearman because he (Smearman) hit him in the mouth. If McClain was put on trial again there is positive proof, by newly discovered evidence, that he was the identical man that committed the cowardly deed, and none other. We trust that the law will be allowed to take its course, regardless of Mr. Place’s efforts to free a cold-blooded murderer.”
Whether Morrison’s outburst served in balking the plan to free McClain is unknown to your chronicler, who made an effort to learn the outcome. However, during a visit to the home of Mr. and Mrs. D.P. Bowman of Orbisonia the past Summer, the closing act in McClain’s career was unfolded.
Pardon Granted McClain
Mrs. Bowman produced a clipping from “The Grit” of May 19, 1900, captioned, “McClain Is Pardoned,” and telling how the prisoner had been granted freedom by the Board of Pardons a few days earlier. “The Grit,” in quoting a special correspondent from Harrisburg said:
“Curtin McClain yesterday had the stigma of murderer removed from him. The Board of Pardons recommended his pardon by the Governor, and the Executive, in response has caused to issue the document that restores this young man to freedom, and to his friends, but alas! not to his aged mother, who firm in her belief in his innocence of the crime of which he was convicted over 15 years ago, had labored and lived in the hope of seeing justice done her son, only to totter to the grave disappointed in the one desire of her life, a few short weeks before the correctness of her faith was made manifest to all the world, and her erring but too severely punished son was released from a felon’s gloomy cell and bidden to walk again in the bright light of the sun, a free man.”
Yes, McClain was freed. James Place and Attorney Culbertson had won another victory for the prisoner through the Board of Pardons. Once could easily sympathize with McClain’s heart-broken mother, but what of the two broken homes in Huntingdon which McClain’s brutal crime had created? In this instance justice did not triumph.
The writer learned from the Bowmans that McClain had gone to some section in Franklin County after his release and nothing further was heard of him.
While the shocking affair left a certain stigma on the Newton Hamilton camp grounds, the management made every effort to have full protection of the camp and a group of guards from Lewistown and Huntingdon was used for this purpose. The annual gatherings apparently lost little patronage as the seasonal visitors continued to tax the grounds and railroad facilities for many years afterwards.
Somewhat curious about McClain’s progress after given his freedom, the writer stopped at the office of the Board of Pardons several months ago. A ledger taken from a vault revealed various steps in the former prisoner’s career from the time of the murder to his release from prison, and here a final line was inscribed, “Granted pardon May 17, 1900,” which concluded all information the office possessed of Curtin McClain.
Daily News (Huntingdon, Pennsylvania) Dec 8, 1951
If you want to read more about the case: McClain versus Commonwealth, can be found on pages 263-270, in:
Pennsylvania state reports, Volume CX.
CASES ADJUDGED in the
Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
By ALBERT A. OUTERBRIDGE, State Reporter
Cases Argued at January Term, 1885, May Term, 1885, and October and November Term, 1885
NEW YORK AND ALBANY:
BANKS $ BROTHERS, LAW PUBLISHERS. 1888
According to information found on Ancestry.com, after Curtin McClain was released, he lived with his daughter and her family in Cambria Co., PA. His death record (he died in 1940) states he was a hotel proprietor, one census record lists his occupation as proprietor – confectionery and an earlier one lists labor – hotel.