In 1874, Jesse Pomeroy was sentenced to death for murdering at least two children. For the next 50 years America was fascinated by the ‘Boy Fiend’ from Boston.
At the height of his notoriety, Jesse Pomeroy’s name was synonymous with evil. He had a statue at Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors, a special gallery in the world-famous wax museum featuring murderers and ghouls. It was an era when the public was fascinated by murder, the grislier the more interest — for a time Jesse Pomeroy was a top celebrity criminal.
Pomeroy’s early years were conventional enough. His father, from Massachusetts, married his mother, from Maine. After bouncing around a bit, they settled in South Boston to raise their family. Jesse and his older brother Charlie were fairly standard kids, according to Pomeroy’s autobiography. They occasionally quarreled and skipped school to hang out with their dad while he worked at the Navy Yard. (Other versions of his story suggest a less fortunate childhood.)
Though Pomeroy would admit to a certain mischievous streak – like the time he lit off fireworks in school and was punished – he later insisted he was largely a good boy in his early years. The story changed in 1872, when he was 13.
Jesse Pomeroy Shows A Mean Streak
Beginning in July of 1871, a series of horrific attacks took place on children in Boston. Though the details have undoubtedly been mangled in retelling, the sensational nature of the attacks terrified the city. Young children – as young as 3 and 4 – abducted, beaten, stripped and left bound outside in the elements of the marshlands. Disfiguring injuries inflicted with knives and pins seemed intended to leave the children marred, but alive. None died.
Though their memories varied, a picture of the attacker began to emerge. The attacker was a boy himself, but older. As an older boy, possibly with red hair. Jesse Pomeroy had, ‘til then, not been accused of any serious offenses. People would recall that he could be rough when playing with younger children. But it hardly seemed to make him a suspect.
But when police took one of the victims through the schools, looking at the older boys in search of a suspect, he identified Pomeroy. He knew him, he would testify, because Pomeroy had one eye that was nearly white, the unusual feature that made him stand out.
Under questioning, Pomeroy confessed. He would later claim he was duped into it. Nevertheless, Pomeroy was locked up in reform school. His behavior there was exemplary. He seemed to have rehabilitated himself. After less than a year and a half, Pomeroy was sent home.
Mayhem Turns To Murder
Then, barely one month after Pomeroy’s release, in March of 1874, 10-year-old Katie Curran disappeared. Next, the body of four-year-old Horace Mullin was found on a beach, beaten and nearly decapitated. The city fell into a frenzy of fear. It didn’t take long for police to zero in on Jesse Pomeroy. They arrested Pomeroy for the murder of Horace Mullin, but the evidence was flimsy. A witness had seen Pomeroy, or someone similar, and a boy headed toward the beach.
With renewed public anger at the Pomeroy family, Jesse’s mother, Ruth, had to close up her dressmaking shop, where her son Charlie also sold newspapers. When new tenants moved into the building on Broadway in South Boston, another gruesome discovery shocked the city. In the former Pomeroy basement, buried under a heap of ashes, lay the decomposing body of Katie Curran.
Locked in jail, Pomeroy again confessed. He would later say he only made the confession for fear his mother or brother would be charged with the crime. Nevertheless, he went to trial and his lawyers presented an insanity defense. Doctors testified about strange feelings Pomeroy had in his head, how he would slap his head to drive the feelings out and he sometimes blacked out and couldn’t remember what he had done.
The trial produced a jury verdict of guilty, setting the stage for a seesaw debate over what the proper punishment was for the ‘Boy Fiend,’ as the New York Herald dubbed him.
Jesse Pomeroy Execution Ordered
Though the jury did not accept Pomeroy’s insanity, it did recommend leniency because of his age. The judge disagreed, and recommended execution. The governor, meanwhile, refused to sign the order of execution. The governor’s council, however, refused to commute a death penalty sentence; twice the council refused.
The standoff ended with a compromise. The state spared Jesse Pomeroy, but would lock him up for life in solitary confinement in the state prison at Charlestown.
For more than 40 years Massachusetts kept Jesse Pomeroy locked away in solitary confinement, held at bay like a monster. He tried to escape at least a dozen times. In one instance he managed to trigger a gas explosion. He hoped it would blow open the door to his cell and he could somehow fight his way out. The door did, in fact, break open but the explosion also knocked Pomeroy silly. He couldn’t execute the rest of his plan.
The Lifer Reemerges
In 1917, the governor’s council finally allowed Pomeroy back into general prison population and he began spinning a narrative of a reformed man. He had mastered a half dozen languages while in solitary and dabbled in several more. He had begun writing poetry, some of which he would publish and read aloud at prison shows.
During World War I, Pomeroy had sold war bonds in jail. And in 1923 and ’24, he speculated in stocks, with much of the rest of America, but from his jail cell. He further tried rehabilitating his image in 1928, suing local political activist Alice Blackwell. In a letter arguing against his release, she had written that he had tortured animals in prison – a charge he vehemently denied.
In 1929, Pomeroy would set foot outside the walls of the Charlestown prison for the first time in 43 years. The state transferred him to the state hospital at Bridgewater, but a year later a story suggested that the old murderer had not fully reformed. Jailers found saw blades and tools in his possession, evidence that he planned one last escape attempt. He never made it.
Two years later, at 74, Jesse Pomeroy finally died of a heart attack in prison. He insisted on his innocence with no explanation for how he became the ‘boy fiend.’
This story was updated in 2022.