True Crime at the MHS

By Susan Martin, Senior Processing Archivist

On 25 December 1907, a shocking crime took place in Hyde Park, Boston, Mass. Dr. Walter R. Amesbury shot and killed his wife Anna (Edwards) Amesbury in front of their two sons and Anna’s mother, just as the family was preparing to sit down to Christmas dinner. Dr. Amesbury was arrested by Hyde Park police officer Robert E. Grant. The MHS holds a collection of Grant’s diaries, which provide a small window into this tragic story.

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New York Times, 26 Dec. 1907

For this post, I’ve done my best to piece together details from the newspaper articles available to me. Unsurprisingly, these accounts differ slightly, but there’s enough consistency to form an idea of what happened that day.

Walter Raleigh Amesbury was born in Harlow, England in 1859. He was the oldest son of Joseph Walter Raleigh Amesbury, a surgeon-major in the Indian Medical Service, and a direct descendant of Sir Walter Raleigh. Many articles about the shooting dwell on his elite ancestry, as if to say “how the mighty have fallen!” As a young man, Walter served as a military officer in the Second Anglo-Afghan War. His first wife, Euphemia (née Inglis), died in 1883, just two years into their marriage, and it was sometime after her death that Amesbury emigrated to the United States.

Anna Edwards, born in Cincinnati in 1867, was an accomplished musician. One article includes some good biographical details about her, so I’ll crib it here.

From Cincinnati had come a talented young musician, Anna Vattier Edwards, who after being graduated from a conservatory at Cincinnati, came to Boston to further cultivate her voice at the New England Conservatory of Music. […] For a time she was soloist at Grace Church, the best known and most fashionable church in Providence. […] Then Mrs. Amesbury became professor of vocal culture at Roanoke College, in Virginia.

Anna and Walter had married on 22 June 1886, and their two sons, Walter, Jr. and Ira, were born in 1887 and 1890, respectively. But the marriage was troubled. Some articles speculate about financial problems or refer to Walter’s jealousy, either personal or professional. Whatever the reasons, Anna and Walter were living apart in 1907. Anna was teaching in Virginia, and Walter lived at Milford, Mass. The family gathered for the Christmas holiday at the home of Anna’s mother, Virginia “Jennie” Rees, a third-floor apartment on Metropolitan Avenue, Hyde Park.

According to one newspaper, this reunion was an attempt at reconciliation orchestrated by Jennie, Walter, Jr., and Ira. Another article states that Walter, Sr. was never invited at all. Either way, Walter wanted to reconcile, but Anna categorically refused. There was a heated argument. Walter fired two fatal shots from a 22-caliber revolver, and the injured Anna tried to run from the apartment, but collapsed and died in the hallway as their sons wrestled the gun from their father.

At first, Walter pleaded not guilty and claimed the shooting was accidental. He later changed his plea to guilty of murder in the second degree.

Now, I’m no lawyer, but if I were, I’d definitely want to know why Walter brought a gun to Christmas dinner. He admitted to buying it that day, which certainly suggests premeditation, especially when we consider one detail that didn’t make into some of the newspaper accounts: he came to his mother-in-law’s home twice that day. The argument began during the first visit. Walter left and returned about an hour later, and it was during this second visit that he killed Anna.

The murder of Anna Amesbury made the front page of the Boston Globe the following day. The headline read: “KILLED WIFE WHO LEFT HIM / Dr. W. R. Amesbury Shot Her in Hyde Park / She Refused His Final Offer to Live With Him Again / Physician Said to Have Been Jealous of His Spouse.” From Boston, the story spread far and wide. The description of Anna that I quoted above comes from an article printed in New Zealand!

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Morris County Chronicle, Morristown, N.J., 31 Dec. 1907
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The Evening Statesman, Walla Walla, Wash., 26 Dec. 1907
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New Zealand Times, 20 Mar. 1909

Walter R. Amesbury was convicted and sentenced to life in prison on 11 January 1909. Arresting officer Robert E. Grant didn’t write much about the case in his diaries, and his collection doesn’t include a diary for 1907 or 1909. But he did visit Amesbury in prison on more than one occasion over the years and recorded his death from the flu on 17 March 1926. Grant also saved a clipping, probably dated 1923, related to the Amesbury sons and their disagreement on a possible pardon for their father.

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Unidentified newspaper, ca. 1923

Anna Vattier (Edwards) Amesbury is buried at Fairview Cemetery in Boston. The following is the only image of her that I could find.

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Image of Anna Amesbury from the files of the Wood Detective Agency at Harvard University