What might possess a good, God-fearing young man to commit acts so heinous, so barbarous, that their very commission becomes a testament to the awesome, subtle evil that can work within the heart of even the most righteous, morally upright of individuals? Would the power of strong drink, of opium—mixed with a restless, agitated sexual perversion— be sufficient to bend the psyche of a common , placid man, until he acted out the buried savagery that is part and parcel of his genetic heritage as a child of humanity? Only the terrible tale of Thomas Piper can give us some hint as to what motivates a seemingly normal young man to stoop to such monstrous barbarity.
Mr. Piper’s first selected victim was the luckless female servant Bridget Landregan, and he followed her to the outskirts of Boston on that fateful day of December 5th, 1873, stealthily. Secured upon his person, hidden beneath the folds of his great black coat, was a giant club with which he intended to bludgeon the woman. After assaulting and dragging her body into some nearby bushes, Piper was soon dismayed to hear of people approaching down the roadway. Too frightened to commence raping the corpse of his victim, he quickly fled the scene. He was unsatisfied, though, with his interruption, and he quickly commenced to secure another victim in the person of Mary Sullivan. This time, he was able to complete an act of rape. He then commenced to celebrate his outlandish victories with a dollop of opium, and a quart of fresh whiskey; such are the small luxuries of some men’s lives.
His duties at his Baptist church were small, but included some minimal supervision over the state of the building, and ringing the bell; the latter he held to be his favorite occupation, as the great resounding clang of the bell called men with a heavy heart to worship, and repentance. One can be forgiven for wondering just what sort of repentance Mr. Piper might have felt he himself was in need of obtaining, if any.
After a short amount of time, and with the heady rush of murder mixed with the relative ease of escape still brewing in his icy veins, Thomas Piper befriended a local prostitute; ostensibly to save her soul, although the unfortunate harlot may have accorded the method proffered by the unorthodox Thomas Piper as being somewhat peculiar, if not downright shameful. After utilizing her services one evening, and still feeling unsatisfied, he awoke next to the sleeping woman and, stealing into the darkness, brought forth a heavy hammer which he had briefly deigned to borrow from the church storeroom. He then bludgeoned the whore until brains and blood splattered the walls and ceiling of the cheap hotel in which they were staying. He escaped into the night, and although the woman was found still barely living, she died a short time later. Thomas Piper, righteous churchgoer that he was, had now killed brutally three times.
He managed to swear off his peculiar urges for very nearly a year, before the hideous longing rose up in him again. He devised a plan, oddly enough, which centered around the one truly satisfying aspect of his job with his Baptist church: the ringing of the bell. The belfry was a nice, secluded room that few people besides himself ever entered, so one fine day, while espying a particularly cheery little maiden named Mabel Young walking toward him in the deserted church vestibule, he tempted the child to accompany him up the ladder to the church belfry, under the promise that she would be able to “feed the pigeons.” It was only a short time later, having ascended to the belfry with Mabel Young following, that Thomas Piper grabbed a cricket bat out of a darkened corner, and bludgeoned the innocent child senseless. This final murder was his fatal error. Within moments, he became aware of a general commotion in the church beneath him, as a grieving, anxious mother and several other people began to search the premises for little Mabel. Panicking, and perhaps still under the influence of strong drink or narcotics, Thomas Piper proceeded to crawl from the belfry window, to the overarching branches of an adjacent tree, and drop to the ground.
He then bolted, badly, having perhaps sprained his ankle in the fall. Unfortunately, no fewer than two individuals witnessed his bizarre, broad-daylight escape attempt, and quickly informed the authorities. It was only a short time later that Thomas Piper was in custody. Mabel Young died of her wounds; Thomas Piper was charged with her murder. His only defense was that the killing had been accidental, as he claimed profusely that he had simply cocked the trap open with his bat to secure the ventilation of the belfry room, and that the whole assemblage, bat and all, had fallen back on the girl as she climbed in after him. The jury sat slack-jawed in disbelief. Thomas Piper was sentenced to swing.
His lawyer, a great, burly man named Edward P. Brown, was loyal to him, and trying desperately in a last-ditch attempt to find some sort of evidence that might convince the judge, at the very least, to have his client’s sentence commuted to life imprisonment, began to read zealously the court transcripts and testimony, looking for some sort of fresh angle from which to appeal for mercy. Instead, much to the dismay of his condemned client, Mr. Brown began to gravely doubt the veracity of his client’s claims, and visiting him one night in jail, began to strongly interrogate him concerning his unusual version of events. To his surprise, not only did Thomas H. Piper break down in tears, confessing entirely to the murder of Mabel Young, but he likewise, for the first time, provided full and startling details as to the murder of the other women, Sullivan, Tynam, and Landregan. His only defense for his actions involved the use of narcotics and heavy alcohol, which he claimed, he took in large quantities to “still the pain and anguish” that often afflicted his mind. Such feelings were stilled for him, permanently, on May 26th, 1876, when he was hung by the neck at Charles Street Jail, until dead.
History does not tell us who replaced him as church bell ringer.