Eric Armstrong hopes to a solve a murder - a nearly 155-year-old murder.
The murder of John Doyle on Sunday, June 10, 1866, on a remote road near Titusville involved a sordid cast of characters that included killers, cads, counterfeiters, thieves and one innocent girl.
Armstrong, a former president of the board of the Jefferson County Historical Society, was attracted to the case while he was researching another murder story. Charles Chase was the first man hanged in Jefferson County. He was executed for the murder of Betty McDonald.
Before the execution, Armstrong said, Chase was interviewed by a journalist from Pittsburgh, and the "Life and Confessions of Charles Chase" was published in 1867.
"In the book Chase confessed to the murder of two people, but not to the murder of Betty McDonald or John Doyle," Armstrong said. "I knew about Betty McDonald, but who was John Doyle?"
The trail to Titusville
When Armstrong began his research on Doyle as part of a book he wrote, everything pointed toward Titusville. Armstrong found Doyle, a veteran of the Civil War, was living at the Railroad Hotel in Titusville in June 1866.
He was employed as a cooper supplying barrels for the petroleum industry. He was a foreman at the O.K. Howe barrel factory at the time of his death.
On the day of the murder, Chase had engaged a buggy and was going to take a friend, Harriet Matteson, to church. He never made it to Matteson's home, which was 6 miles away.
Armstrong said Doyle had told the hotel manager there could be a wedding soon, but he had to hurry because "some fellows would like to shoot me if I don't keep away from them."
He was driving the buggy along the Titusville-Thompson Road, just about 2 miles north of town, when he was killed. Just as the road started to ascend a hill, his killer fired a single shot from a concealed position beside the road.
"I believe the gun was loaded with two balls," Armstrong said. "He was so close, the wadding from the gun was found on the road."
Doyle did not die immediately. He fell off the buggy and crawled under a tree, bleeding profusely. Two men found him and went for help.
Doyle told the men he had no enemies and did not know why he had been shot. The fatal shot had entered Doyle's left shoulder area and had traveled downward exiting on the right side of his body.
He was taken to the home of David and Eliza Kerr, but died en route. When Matteson heard of Doyle's death, she stayed at the Kerr home until after the funeral. The 21 year-old woman said afterward they were friends, but there was "no arrangement" between them.
The first person authorities suspected of the murder was 29 year-old William F. Eldred, who lived on a farm near Titusville. He was known to frequent Matteson's home. He was not arrested until April 1867, when he was charged with "guilty knowledge" of the crime.
The complaint originated with Z. D. Burdick, who was "on the track" of the guilty man. Burdick had quite a career himself.
At that time, Burdick operated a saloon in Titusville. He also was, according to Chase, the mastermind of a group of counterfeiters known as the "black legs."
The case against Eldred quickly fell apart. He was described as "the most innocent man imaginable, a kind country greenhorn who looks too bashful to pop the question and too mild to kill a mouse."
Apparently, Matteson agreed. The two married and spent a long life together.
Burdick, on the other hand, was described as a "little old, dried up man with ferret eyes peering through his silver specs, wearing army pants with one leg tied up in a blanket. He hobbles around on crutches with piles of mysterious documents protruding from his pockets. He is wrapped in the silence of his own impenetrability."
The Titusville City Directory of 1866 listed Zebulon Burdick as a saloon owner, but he evidently appointed himself as a detective and investigated Doyle's murder. He told people he tracked the killer for a "twelvemonth" under the "hottest sun and the deepest snow."
During the Eldred inquest, the name Charles Chase began to be heard. Chase was about 23 years old and lived near Centerville. One witness said Chase's business was stealing "as long as I have known him."
At the inquest, Burdick said Chase killed Doyle and that Eldred paid him $150 to do it. He failed to produce evidence to support his claim. At that time, Chase was in jail in Jefferson County.
Burdick himself was charged two days later with the murder. Witnesses said Burdick had wanted two other men to go to Canada with them in search of Doyle's killer (and the $1,000 reward).
Armstrong said testimony seemed to indicate a group of thieves were operating in the area and that Burdick was involved. One witness said Burdick told them he wanted to take some counterfeit money with him to Canada.
Burdick was released when no evidence was produced against him.
Charles Chase was born near Centerville in Crawford County in 1841. He told journalist James Onslow that he met Burdick in 1855 when he was 14 years old. Burdick gave Chase $300 in counterfeit bank notes and told him to circulate the money. They would split what they could make.
At that time, currency was not regulated and any bank could print notes. These bank notes were accepted for many transactions. It was not until the Civil War that federal greenbacks replaced the bank notes.
A pattern was set. Chase would take the bogus notes with him and cash them as he traveled through western Pennsylvania and New York. He would buy wood shingles in one town and sell them in the next town at a tidy profit.
In Pittsburgh, he met a woman who made notes and she replaced Burdick as his supplier of bogus bank notes. Chase was arrested several times but was either released or used his watch spring to spring himself out of jail.
Chase formed a partnership with a man named Palmer Stevens, and the pair circulated bad money all the way to Michigan and back.
In Michigan, Chase agreed to a prizefight. Chase, who had been trained as a boxer, hit his opponent so hard that the man later died. He was arrested for murder, but later released.
Chase had a new partner by then, but the man betrayed him to the local authorities. Chase eluded the posse pursuing him and linked up with his partner again.
While crossing the Maumee swamp, Chase admitted to cutting the man's throat. He took all of the man's clothes and his bogus Canadian money before tramping the body into the swamp.
In 1860, Chase met and married a young lady in Illinois. When she would not return to Pennsylvania, he left the 17 year-old and never returned. It was not the last time he would marry and desert his bride.
In 1863, Chase enlisted in the Navy in Erie, collecting a $600 bounty. He left the Navy and went to Corry, where a woman recognized him as the father of her child. A financial settlement was reached.
In October 1865, Chase was working as a brakeman on the Oil Creek & Titusville Railroad when he married again. That ended when he returned home one night and found his young wife in the arms of another man. He resolved that situation by leaving her.
Chase then went into cattle stealing. He and a partner would drive cattle from a farm one night and take them to the next town, where they promptly sold the stock.
'The questions remain'
Chase was hiding in the woods when he was captured and taken to a tavern in Centerville. He was accused of the Doyle murder, but swore he was 10 miles away and provided a witness to prove it. Chase denied knowing Doyle and said he had no reason to kill him.
He was working at Sugar Run on the Allegheny River when, according to Chase, Burdick showed up with an odd request. He wanted Chase to assist him in persuading "Martha Madison" (Harriet Matteson) to leave the area because she knew what had happened to Doyle and could identify the murderer. Chase refused.
A week later, Burdick showed up with a warrant for him and Chase took off. Chase went to Phillipsburg and, less than two weeks later, Burdick showed up again along with a constable. After a scuffle, Chase again escaped.
Chase and Warren Dean Graves turned up in Jefferson County, where they were accused of the murder of McDonald. Chase was arrested and executed for a crime he swore he did not commit.
Graves escaped, but was later captured, tried and convicted in the murder of McDonald. He was sentenced to serve 11 years in prison.
In Armstrong's soon to be published book "This is Hard," he says the murder of Doyle might never be solved.
"The questions remain," he said. "I believe Zebulon Burdick had a lot to do with it. He pursued the killer and tried to persuade Harriet (Matteson) to leave the area. It was Burdick that tried to shift suspicion to Chase.
"I believe Doyle may have known something about Burdick's criminal enterprise and was killed to silence him."
Burdick wasn't arrested for any of his alleged criminal activities. The 1870 census listed his assets as $20,000 in real estate and $3,000 in his personal estate. The Titusville Directory listed him as a grocer, variety store owner and junk dealer. Burdick died in Titusville in 1889.
The title of Armstrong's book - "This is hard" - is a coincidental aspect to this case. When Chase was hanged in Brookville, the rope was too long and Chase bounced off the ground. When he was lifted back to his feet he said, "This is hard" and was promptly hanged again.
Justice was served in the McDonald murder. Doyle still awaits his justice.