Editor’s note: Following is the third part of a series by Pike County historian, journalist and public relations professional Brent Engel on the 1870 murder of Abbie Summers in Ashley.
Minor Griggs and Joseph Watkins encountered a gruesome scene at the Ashley boarding house where Abbie Summers was staying.
Griggs, owner of the boarding house, and Watkins, principal at nearby Watson Seminary, where Summers taught music classes, had heard a scream. Moments earlier, the two men had left Summers in the room with her former fiancé, Ambrose Coe.
“The first thing we noticed was Coe retreating from the window,” said Watkins, principal of Watson Seminary, where Summers taught music. “We did not see the body at first. The door flying open revealed the body lying under the window partly on its left side. Blood was pouring out of it, and it was propped up by a butcher knife, which was sticking into it.”
The Quincy Daily Whig reported blood had “spurted from the wounds to the ceiling, some 12 feet above the floor and left there great crimson spots, while the carpet was covered with gore.”
Watkins said he asked Griggs to go for a doctor and then wrestled with Coe.
“He muttered something which I took for ‘I have killed her,’ but I do not know certainly it is what he said,” Watkins later testified. “I gave him a wrench over and threw him to the floor. I put my knee on his breast to hold him down. He made no resistance and I … went to her body to see if I could help her. I felt (for a) pulse and found none.”
Though Summers died quickly, she certainly knew what was happening. A wound to her left breast indicated she was facing her attacker when the first blow was struck. One of the three stab marks to the back proved fatal. The weapon had been thrust with such force that it severed her spine.
“I tried to draw the knife out of the body with the left hand, but could not,” Watkins testified. “I changed and drew it out with great difficulty with my right hand. Streams of blood followed the knife.”
Coe “stood calmly by, not a muscle of his face twitched,” the State Journal reported. “He made no effort to escape, but viewed unconcernedly the … ruin at his feet, the body of the sweet girl he had robbed of life.”
Just then, Reuben Strother and an unidentified man entered the room. Strother picked up the knife and moved toward Coe. Fearing that the suspect would be harmed, Watkins intervened and threw the knife out the window. Coe then got up and ran outside to look for it. Watkins said he “grappled with Coe again” until George Matthews could restrain the suspect. Word of the crime spread quickly.
“When the citizens heard of the murder and hastened to the bloody scene, Coe asked them to take him out and hang him,” the Lincoln County Herald said.
The Quincy Daily Herald reported that Coe allegedly said he wanted to die because he “had nothing left to live for.”
Instead of being hung, Coe was arrested. On the trip to the Pike County Jail in Bowling Green, authorities allegedly dared Coe by saying if he really wanted to die, he should jump out of the wagon and make a run for it. Coe “declined doing so, and said ‘Please don’t hurt me,’” according to The Herald.
Summers’ remains were placed in a metal casket at Louisiana and sent to Quincy aboard a steamboat on June 14. Jane Summers accompanied her sister’s body. A visitation was held at a relative’s home near Ninth and Vermont.
“Many who had known Abbie Summers in life, and loved her for her kind and gentle nature and her sweet disposition, called yesterday afternoon to take a last look and mingle their tears with the bereaved ones,” The Whig reported.
The newspaper said that “one could scarcely believe that the cold, inanimate form was locked in death’s embrace, so natural was its appearance.”
“It seemed as though she were sleeping sweetly, the sleep of innocence,” the paper wrote. “No rigidity of features, no contraction of the muscles were there to tell of the fearful agony of the death struggle.”
Summers was dressed in white merino trimmed in white satin.
“All that was mortal of Abbie Summers looked handsome in death,” The Whig wrote. “A wreath of white roses and lilies encircled the pale and still beautiful face, and attested the depth of the love and friendship of those who paid the last sad tribute to her memory.”
The funeral was held June 15 at the Unitarian Church.
“The keen and poignant sorrow, and bitter agony, the anguish and grief of the relatives of the deceased as the burial casket was borne to the desolate family can well be imagined, but not described,” The Whig reported. “They have the heartfelt sympathy of an entire community in the sad hour of grievous affliction.”
Next time: Coe is indicted for murder.