By M.P. Pellicer | Stranger Than Fiction Stories
In 1875, Henry Keech came to St. Augustine, Florida and established a farm a few miles away at Matanzas Inlet, named for the massacre of French sailors decades before. Little did he imagine that death stalked him as well.
Henry Keech came to St. Augustine from Wisconsin in 1873. He purchased a farm in St. John's county 14 miles from the old fort Matanzas Inlet. He was industrious and prospered. He came with a woman who all believed was his wife.
A J. Smith Newton calling himself a land prospector, came to the area supposedly to scout out properties to invest in.
His arrival coincided with the absence of Mr. Keech at the town. Known as a prompt man by his neighbors, Mr. Williams, a business associate came to his house to investigate. Once he arrived at the farm he found an atrocious murder. Mrs. Keech was shot 3 or 4 times, and the house was ransacked. There was no sign of Henry Keech.
Williams raised the alarm with the neighbors, who came and searched the area. Groans led them to the river landing. Henry Keech was found to have been shot various time in the head, and his throat was slit. He was taken to the city for medical attention.
Two search parties were organized, made up by old hunters called "crackers", which knew every foot of the country perfectly. They traveled shy of a 100 miles in search of Mr. Newton who they suspected was the murderer. Neither "whip nor spur" was spared and they found him in Volusia county near Mellonville, where he was making his way on foot to the St. John's River. He had abandoned a horse he had taken from Keech.
He was described as speaking Spanish like a native, was rather small, with blue eyes and whiskers. He had a large scar over his right eye, and used "H" like a cockney.
Once under arrest he said again his name was J. Smith Newton and he was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina of English parents. He said his purpose was not robbery, but revenge. He said the woman known as Mrs. Ellen Keech was not Keech’s wife, and that the real Mrs. Keech lived at Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. Keech had deserted her and took up with the supposed new Mrs. Keech, and fled to Florida.
Newton said he was employed by Mrs. Keech who was his aunt to follow her husband, and murder both him and his mistress. As a reward he was to receive a share of the estate of Mr. Keech, which was worth $30,000.
He was led to confession, since an attempt was made by some of the citizens of Orange County to lynch him.
Initially it was believed the motive for the crime was robbery, but Newton carried on his person a letter waiting to be mailed, where he told his aunt Mary Ann that he did what she instructed, and killed both Henry Keech and the woman he was living with.
It seemed he had posed as an investor with Keech, and persuaded him to go out in his boat to fish in the nearby inlet. When they got near the shore of a small creek, Newton got behind him, and shot him in the head. One ball entered through his neck, near the head and ranged down, not going very deep; the other one was over the right eye and glanced off, only stunning him. Newton then took him out of the boat, and threw him into the marsh. To make sure the job was done right, he pounded Keech's head into a pumice stone. Then he cut his throat from ear to ear.
The police laid a trap for Mrs. Keech, and sent her the letter Newton had written her. Mary Ann Keech upon hearing what she thought was news of her husband's death went to Florida and was arrested, and worse of all found that her husband was still alive.
The perpetrator’s real name was William Newton.
In October, 1875, Mary Ann Keech née Greene was convicted for her part of the murder of Ellen Hunt, alias Ellen Keech as accessory before the fact.
During the trial, testimony described where Henry Keech married a woman known as Mary Ann Newton about 1850. After 20 years, they quarreled and divorced. He left to Florida, promising to record certain property that was supposed to come to her as part of the divorce proceedings before leaving Wisconsin. He never did pass the properties to her.
It took Mary Ann Keech three years to find the whereabouts of her husband in Florida. She hired her nephew William Newton to kill them and obtain the title deeds, which the court had decreed her. There was no sentimental motive behind her actions, strictly a monetary one.
The newspapers described Mary Ann Keech as: "The murderess is a burly woman, with a countenance that does not belie her nature. She received her sentence with the most stolid indifference, gazing at the judge with a defiant look, and seemingly anxious to get upon the platform and wring his neck."
William Newton and his aunt were found guilty and sentenced to hang, but in April 1876 the Supreme Court reversed the sentence of death for both them, and they were to be retried with a change of venue.
It’s unknown what sentence if any was handed down for Mary Ann Keech, but she returned to Wisconsin and married three more times. She outlived all her husbands, except the last one. She died in 1918, age 72.
Henry survived the brutal attack , however he never left Florida and died in 1903, age 75.
William Newton was spared the hangman’s noose, but was instead sent to serve a life sentence.
In March 1879, convicts employed by Mr. Chaires near Live Oak in Leon County made an attempt to escape, one was killed and another wounded but Newton and another man escaped.
In May 1880, a skeleton was found in a marshy area, which was believed to belong to Newton. It's thought he was ignorant of the localities, and after he escaped from prison he wandered through the woods and swamps until exhausted.
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