Murder drew national attention to Pike County
Editor’s note: Following is the first part of a series by Pike County historian, journalist and public relations professional, Brent Engel, on the 1870 murder of Abbie Summers in Ashley.
It happened 150 years ago this summer, but the death of Abbie Summers remains one of the most gruesome murders in Pike County.
One reason may be the crime had elements that ensured timeless interest—a talented teacher, a spurned lover, a jail escape, multiple trials, a muted sentence, a gubernatorial pardon and a mysterious ending.
Ambrose Coe took the life of a woman he said he couldn’t live without. So, how could a burgeoning love turn into such senseless hate?
Perhaps the answer reveals why the case draws attention even now—no one is immune from the darkness of the psyche. Consequences keep most troubled souls from crossing the line. In this case, that didn’t happen, and that’s what scares us.
“The telegraph has dreadfully announced to our readers one of the most heart-rendering butcheries of the age,” the Memphis Daily Appeal of Tennessee announced.
Summers and Coe met in the fall of 1867, when he was 24 and she was 19.
Coe was an Ohio native who took a teaching job at a school in Melrose Township south of Quincy, Ill. Summers was what The Quincy Daily Whig later called the “bright and accomplished” youngest daughter of “well-to-do and highly respected farmer,” Nathaniel Summers.
Abbie’s mother had died while the girl was young, so she had been raised by two older sisters. The family lived about a mile from the farm of Coe’s roommate, William Perkins.
“Coe was young, and was generally regarded as being what is called ‘smart,’ and a good talker and of pleasing address,” The Whig offered. Summers was “favorably impressed with his attentions.”
In February 1868, Coe asked for her hand, but allegedly was more interested in daddy’s deep pockets. Summers’ sister, Jane, suspected Coe was after Nathaniel Summers’ estate, which today would be worth about $900,000.
“Shortly after this, Abbie came to the conclusion that the engagement was a mistake and seemed convinced upon reflection that the marriage as contemplated could not result happily,” according to the newspaper.
Just a month after the engagement, Summers wrote to Coe and said both would be better off if they parted.
“She expressed a sisterly regard for him; stated that she would ever entertain for him the kindest feelings, but that the promises of love and marriage … were given without consideration,” the State Journal reported. “While she respected him as a friend, she could never be his wife.”
Coe “became enraged upon receiving the letter” and “wrote her that if she did not marry him, she should never marry anyone,” according to The Whig.
“This was the serious turning point in Coe’s history, and from that time onward a demon of darkness seemed to have possessed him,” the State Journal theorized.
Coe couldn’t let go, and things got ugly fast.
“He made frequent attempts to see her, and when once in her presence would beg her to reconsider her decision,” The Whig said.
The harassment got so bad that Summers decided to take a music teaching job at Watson Seminary in Ashley, Mo.
Distance did not quell love’s longings because several Ashely residents remember seeing or talking with Coe after Summers started teaching there.
However, the lovers apparently tried to make it work because witnesses would later say the engagement was renewed and broken off at least twice more, always during Summers’ return to Melrose Township at the end Watson Seminary’s spring term.
Perkins testified about his roommate’s ominous, yet unheeded, warning after the final break in August 1869, noting that he said “he had a pistol and would shoot Miss Summers and kill himself.”
Jane Summers said Coe told her that had the marriage gone forward, the two “would have been the happiest couple in the world.”
George Fogg, who also knew Coe, said he had frequent talks with the forsaken groom about Summers and that Coe said “she should never marry anyone else.”
The Whig reported Summers “always feared what she called the ‘scenes’ Coe made.” Afraid of more encounters, Summers stayed at Ashley after the spring term in May 1870.
She would not return to Illinois alive.
Next time: The murder weapon was thrust with such force that it severed Abbie Summers’ spine.