Episode 003: Murder Creek

This is a podcast transcript, originally published as part of the Crimes & Witch-Demeanors Podcast.

INTRO: Hello and welcome to Crimes and Witch Demeanors; I am your host Joshua Spellman.  Join me today for a spooky tale of murder, mystery, and of course…ghosts. 

Today’s location is Akron, New York.  A small village outside of Buffalo, New York and specifically we’ll be talking about…murder creek.  Yes, you heard that correctly.  That is the official name of this place and it got its name from…you guessed it…murder.  There are two stories that surround this creek: The Legend of Murder Creek which gave it its name, and the curious case of murderess Sadie McMullen.  So without further ado let’s discuss the tragic history of Angola’s Murder Creek.

An old map of Akron (formerly known as Fallkirk)

The sources of our first story vary, but I have acquired most of the information from The life of General Ely S. Parker : last grand sachem of the Iroquois and General Grant’s military secretary written in 1919 by Arthur Caswell Parker and published by the Buffalo Historical Society.  This book is accessible in its entirety from the Internet Archive at archive.org.  However it should be noted that Arthur Caswell Parker lifted the story from a 1906 book written by Uriah Cummings called The Haunted Corners.  However, the Parker version follows the original source nearly word-for-word.  Uriah Cumming’s book was written to explain the ghosts that he claimed lived on his property.  There is only one remaining copy of the Haunted Corners in existence housed at the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society’s research library.  The Legend of Murder Creek appears to be an actual historical account of events, or at least a version of them.  In the newspapers for the murder case we’ll discuss next the story seems to be a bit different, only mentioning a robbery.  However, Cummings purports that he possessed the diary and personal papers of John Dolph, as the Dolph home once stood on his land, and that was the source of this legend.  The Dolph family was indeed real, and are buried in Ledge Lawn Cemetery.  You can find photographs of their graves on findagrave.com.  Other sources used for this story include Erie.Gov, the official county website, and NYFalls.com.


Before Murder Creek obtained its haunting name, it was known to the Native Seneca tribes as De-on-go-te Gah-hun-da, or “the place of hearing”  Other sources claim the original name as See-un-gut, or “the roar of distant waters”.  Colonizers knew it as Sulphur Creek as indicated on maps at the time.  As with most early settlements by colonizers, water was an important resource to live by.  In the spring of 1820, a white settler known as John Dolph built his cabin on the shores of the creek, with eventual plans to erect a sawmill with his business partner Peter Van Deventer, using the creek’s water as a power source.

One chilly October evening, while Dolph was pouring over his plans with his wife, they heard a blood curdling scream emanate from the woods outside.  Concerned, John and Sarah lept to their feet and threw open their door.  Running towards them was a Native woman, wildly out of breath, shouting “Save me!  Please save me!” and begging for refuge.

The Dolphs quickly obliged and without hesitation, ushered the woman inside, promptly barring their front door.  Within moments of securing the latch, the door shook violently on it’s hinges  “Let me in!” a man bellowed, throwing his weight against the door.

John stalled the unknown assailant by asking him questions while motioning for his wife to hide the young woman.  And he reached for his musket.  Sarah opened a trap door, escaping into the night and leading her to the mouth of a nearby cavern.

The man impatiently responded to John’s inquiries, explaining that his name was Sanders and that the girl was his prisoner.  Her father, an Indian chief, placed her in his care because she wished to marry a “bad Indian”.  He asked once more, albeit more politely, for entrance into the Dolph’s home.  With the girl safely concealed from view, John Dolph’s obliged.

Unbarring the door, John let Sanders inside.  Sanders, panting and full of rage, surveyed the home.  He saw no signs of his prey.  He glanced upward, spying the attic opening and a ladder leading up into the darkness.  John lit a candle, and handed it to Sanders.  I imagine he did so quite smugly, “Please, feel free to look”.  Sanders ascended the ladder and soon came back down, in even more of a rage.  “That girl is here!” he hissed, “I saw her come in!  Where is your cellar?” he snarled, scanning the floorboards. 

John moved aside his carpet to reveal the trap door and bade Sanders down to investigate.  Again, Sanders discovered nothing.  No trace of the girl and no visible means of escaping, aside from the ladder he just descended.

Murder Creek today

Making his way back up, Sanders swore and muttered under his breath that he would have the girl if it was the last of his deeds. In exasperation Sanders said he was headed to Canfield Tavern for a drink and he quickly retreated into the night. 

After some time, John Dolph reunited with his wife and they cautiously made their way down the side of the gorge to the cave that sheltered the young girl, located a little ways north of the falls.  With the autumn moon shining brightly overhead, The Dolphs surveyed their surroundings.  They looked up and down the dirt path, into the forest, and along the banks of the stream and saw no one.  Satisfied they were not being followed, they entered the cave.  However, though the moon illuminated the night, it could not penetrate the dense canopy of trees, and the Dolphs failed to notice the figure of a large man crouched beneath the shadows of a large pine.

The Dolph’s entered the chamber and found the girl asleep, passed out from exhaustion.  Upon hearing their approaching footsteps, the girl shot up in fright “Where is he?!” she cried.  Sarah calmed the young girl, assuring her that she was safe.  It was then that she recounted her tale of horror.

Her account of events was recorded by John Dolph in his diary and was reproduced by Cummings in full in his text.  Though, I will be paraphrasing.  Cummings notes his surprise of the young girl’s fluency in English and attributes it to the fact she was most likely a student at the mission school in Tonawanda.  I find it important to mention that these schools often forcibly took young children from their parents to enroll in these schools, forced to assimilate to American culture under harsh conditions of abuse.  These schools played a major role in the cultural genocide, erasure, and decimation of many Native Nations with painful echoes and generational trauma that reach to the modern day.

Back to our story.

The girl’s name was Ah-weh-hah or, as she said in “the language of the pale face” Wild Rose.  She explained that she lived near Spirit Lake, under the cliff, about a mile from the Tonawanda Falls.  Her mother had died several years ago and she lived with her elderly father, Go-wah-na (The Great Fire) who was a chief of the Seneca Nation.  Moments before Ah-weh-hah happened upon the Dolphs, her father had been brutally murdered by Sanders.

Sanders had been stalking Ah-weh-hah for over than a year, asking for her hand in marriage.  However, she already had a love, Tah-yoh-ne, Grey Wolf, who she was to marry.  Enraged by this, Sanders vowed that instead of seeing Ah-weh-hah marry a Seneca, he would murder all those who stood in his path.

Ah-weh-hah took it upon herself to prevent her love, Tah-yoh-ne, from crossing paths with Sanders, for she knew if he were to harm Sanders in self-defense, that the authorities would not listen to his story and would punish him regardless of his innocence.

So, Go-wah-na, in an attempt to protect his daughter, decided to send her away to the Cattaraugus Nation.  There she could safely be joined by fiancé Tah-yoh-ne away from the bloodthirsty clutches of Sanders.

That morning Ah-weh-hah and her father set out to Te-os-ah-wah, known as the city of Buffalo.  When they reached the bank of the De-on-go-te Gah-hun-da, or modern day Murder Creek, they sat down to listen to the waterfall and rest.

It was then that they saw Sanders approaching.  However, he approached them with his hand extended, apologizing for his past actions.  He smiled as he explained to them that he made up his mind to let go of Ah-weh-hah and that he hoped she would be happy with Tah-yoh-ne.  He explained he was currently making his way to the Wild West to start his life anew and has not expected to ever see Ah-weh-hah or her father again.  However, as fortune had it, they appeared to be headed in the same direction and Sanders offered to help on their journey to atone for his sins.

They agreed to travel together.  They walked for some time and set up camp for the night.  Here, Ah-weh-hah stared into the east and saw a light in the valley not far away and at that very moment was startled by a loud sound followed by a groan.  She turned to see her father lying on the ground, face-down in the dirt, and looming over him was Sanders with an uplifted club in his hands.

With a devilish grin, Sanders moved to attack Ah-weh-hah, but she was swift.  Quickly, she made her way to the light in the distance, which happened to be the Dolph’s residence.

After hearing her story, the Dolphs resolved to protect Ah-weh-hah.  John made his way to the camp she had described.  Here he found the smoldering coals of the campfire and the lifeless body of Go-wah-na.  This is the spot that later became known as the Haunted Corners.  When dawn broke, John and his business partner Peter Van Deventer buried his remains and learned that Sanders had taken the Buffalo stage at midnight. 

Word of the tragedy spread quickly to the Seneca Nation and when John returned home, Tah-yoh-ne had already arrived to reunite with his love.  Ah-weh-hah was elated to see her lover and begged to visit the grave of her father.  Together they made their way to the newly dug grave of her father.  Once there, Ah-weh-hah and Tah-yoh-ne chanted a traditional death song, ignited a grave fire, and burned tobacco.

While enveloped in their grief and distracted by their funeral rites, something leaped from the underbrush.  Brandishing an ax, with a demonic glint in his eye, Sanders bore down on the couple but Tah-yoh-ne reached for his tomahawk and a brawl ensued.  Both men lost handle on their axes and reached for their hunting knives and furiously ripped at one another’s flesh.  The blood flowed like a stream until suddenly…it was quiet.  Sanders stopped motionless and fell to the ground.

Frozen in fear, Ah-weh-hah could not move.  Tah-yoh-ne went to comfort her but he could not speak.  He was too weak from the loss of blood.  He swayed from side to side, staggered, and fell.  Dying on the grave of her father.  Ah-weh-hah let out a scream of pain which echoed through the woods to the Dolph’s home.  Upon hearing this cry, Mr. Dolph ran the quarter mile to the camp.  Ah-weh-hah was sobbing, and between the heavy heaves of her cries she uttered the traditional death chant.  John once again, dug two more graves.

Sarah Dolph’s Grave

Ah-weh-hah often visited graves of her father and her love to sing her grief.  One day, many moons later, the Dolphs did not hear from her.  They searched and came across Ah-weh-hah’s lifeless body lying upon the grave of her love, seemingly having died of heartbreak.  Here she was buried between the graves of her father and her lover.

As Legend has it, if you walk the trails of Murder Creek at night you may hear the voices of two the lovers as they wander the trails.  They were forsaken marriage in life, but have been united in death by an unbreakable bond.

While it was these events that successfully changed the name of Sulphur Creek to Murder Creek, sadly these were not the last murders to occur there.  For our next story, we’re fast forwarding 70 years to the year of 1890. 

It was October 31, 1890 a spoooooky Halloween just like any other when 17 year-old Sarah Sadie McMullen made a trip to the local store to buy some butter.  That Halloween day had been spent at the Brown home, engaging in songs and parlor games that were popular among girls at the time.  A Happy Halloween indeed.  Sadie was accompanied on her trip to the Johnson’s store by 6 year-old Delia Brown, the daughter of her widower boss, Simon Brown, and her friend, 10-year old Nellie May Connor.  Nellie was reported as being four years old eight years old, and nine years old depending on the article.  However, I looked up her grave and she was actually 10 years old.  Sadie had worked as a servant in the Brown’s household and helped care for the Mrs. Brown during a time of illness.  She bonded with little Delia, and was kept on as a housekeeper after Mrs. Brown’s passing. 

Once at the Johnson’s store, Sadie began acting very strangely.  She took out a quarter and slammed it on the counter.  She walked away before the store clerk could get her butter from the ice box or give her change.  A quarter in 1890 is the equivalent of $7.15 and you know something’s up if you literally just throw away money.  And it only gets creepier from here.

The bridge where the murder took place

After leaving the store, Sadie, with the children in tow, walked to the New York Central Railroad Bridge that stood over 50ft above the Murder Creek gorge.  She coaxed the children to the center of the bridge before hurling little Nellie May Connor into the rushing waters below.  Then Sadie turned on Delia, the girl who she supposedly loved like a daughter, and after a short struggle, managed to heave her off the trestle as well. 

“Hello Sadie”

After committing these treacherous acts, Sadie made her way back to the Brown’s house, walking through the front door without the children.  Simon was not home, he was barkeeping at his saloon.  Sadie was greeted instead by Hannah, Simon’s sister.

Sadie just stared back at Hannah and held out her hand. “Goodbye Hannah”

“Where are you going?” asked Hannah, confused.

“WELL FINE!  If you don’t want to shake hands with me, well then alright” Sadie exclaimed, turned on her heels and stormed out of the house.  It was then that Hannah realized the children were not with her.

Concerned, Hannah went to tell her father of her apprehensions.  In the midst of her explanation, Simon happened to stop by and Hannah relayed her worries once more.  Simon simply laughed and assured Hannah that the children were in good hands.

Meanwhile, Sadie made her way through the dark to a bridge behind the saloon owned by Mr. Brown.  This bridge was much smaller than the trestle bridge, a mere 10 feet from the water.  Sadie looked down at the stream below her, took a deep breath, and dove into the water.

Now drowning Sadie screamed in the night.  Sadie was eventually rescued from the waters by the father of Delia, Simon Brown and his friend George Jones.  Hannah claims she was there to extend her hand and help pull Sadie safely to shore.  Sadie screamed and shrieked that they put her back into the water immediately, but against her wishes they carried the hysterical girl back to the Brown’s family home where a doctor was called to tend to her.

“Where are the children?” the family demanded.

“What children?” Sadie replied, confused.

“Delia!  Where is Delia!”

“Was she with me?”

“Yes!”

“Last I remember she was at the Johnson’s store” Sadie replied, running her fingers through her hair “Why is my hair wet?”

A search party was set out for the girls.  Nellie May Connor was soon discovered, her body twisted in a horrible manner, her lifeless eyes staring up at the bridge some 50 feet above her.  Hours later, around 3 am, the search party heard a moan and followed it to find that Delia Brown had survived.  As they carried little Delia up the gorge they heard her mutter weakly “Sarah was smart to throw us off the bridge”

Sadie was soon brought to trial and if convicted, was to become the first woman to be put to death by the electric chair.  Many of the articles of the time oddly focus on her appearance:

Pale and slender as she is, and dressed in exquisite though simple taste, her long brown hair falling in thick waves around her face and shoulders, she looks more like a child of ten than a girl of seventeen, who is barged with a most awful crime, and whose life depends on the ability of her lawyers and the mercy of the jury. But she either does not mind or does not realize her position, for every once in a while she turns her face to the sunlit windows and smiles as though she were happy and contented. And then she scans the women who throng the court-room, only to sit back in her chair with a weary air as though the whole affair and her presence in court were bore.

Her face, while not particularly intelligent, is pretty. It bears a chic expression which is taking and she has a naive way of pursing up her lips which at times is, quite fascinating. There is nothing in her manners or her features which would indicate insanity or any other spirit than that of peace and girlish love.

Sadie’s past was full of trauma and she was plagued by mental and physical illness.  An Irish American, Sadie was raised in poverty with an absentee father and a mother described as “an irritable, quick-tempered, troublesome woman, with suicidal and homicidal tendencies.” Sadie appeared to have suffered from epileptic seizures and lost time beginning very early in her childhood, presumably something inherited from her mother.  When Sadie was only three her mother came across a bear while in the woods of Wisconsin and after running to a nearby house for help, she died soon thereafter, seemingly from shock. 

At the age of 12 Sadie travelled with her alcoholic father, half-brother, and younger sister by foot from Wisconsin to Akron, New York.  Which is very far.

Upon their arrival in Akron, Sadie’s strange behaviors did not stop.  Once Sadie had found herself atop a ladder picking cherries, miles and miles from home, and another time she found herself at her front door wearing nothing but her underwear, her clothes were tucked underneath her arm and were soaking wet and she could not remember why.

All of these stories of her losing time were never brought up until the trial.  So, it’s debtable whether she was insane.  But let us give her the benefit of the doubt.  Despite this history of mental illness Sadie showed many signs that her murders were premediated.

Two days prior to the murder, she sent a letter to her aunt in Buffalo, on October 29, which reads, in part: “I don’t care if I never hear from him. I won’t look at him when I come back. He will find that I ain’t as soft as I look.” Clearly a strange letter about a liaison with a lover.

On Halloween, the day of the murders, Sadie received a letter while in the company of Simon Brown’s sister, Hannah.  While Hannah did not know the letters’ contents, she could tell it upset Sadie.  It was from a servant at one of Sadie’s former employers in Buffalo, accusing her of stealing diamonds and valuables from the mansion she used to work at.  Barely hiding her emotions, Sadie ran home and penned the following letter to her aunt:

DEAR AUNTY:

When you get this I will be far from earth, I am sick and tired of living and as I told you my last hope is come at last—I am thankful to die, people rebuke me for things that I am not guilty of and as I have no one to love me, I can go in peace, as my heart I leave in Akron with the one I always spoke to you of, as he seems to not care for me. I know it is a sin to put an end to myself, but I am not the only one, my brain is longing for the end, now if I only had my little brother to take with me I would be happy. If I had died when I was young how thankful I would have been, but as it is, I must die as it is, so tell my sister that I love her as much as ever, but could not stay with her. I hope you will see to them as I know you will and when I am dead I will come to you and explain, but do not fear me I will not hurt you and the man I loved will know me as a frequent visitor. Oh dear, if it was only over how thankful I would be. I think I will take some one with me so I will close my last letter on earth, hoping God will do justice with me, as he does with everybody, so when you get this you will know that I am no more, you will find my body in the basin in Buffalo, please bury me in Akron as I will be near my loved one so good bye—from Sadie, your no more niece.

The letter was written in a haphazard scrawl that did not resemble Sadie’s handwriting, and Sadie herself could not remember writing it.  SoI believe that either someone else wrote it for the newspapers or she really had written it in an epileptoid state. Later, it was also discovered that the stolen valuables from her former employer were recovered, seemingly misplaced in one of Sadie’s blackouts.

So who was this man that Sadie was obsessed with?  Rumor has it that Sadie was in love with Simon Brown, jealous of Mrs. Eliza Connors, a widow and Nellie May’s mother, whom was said to be involved with Simon.  It was believed that Sadie and Simon were once engaged but he had put an end to it because of Eliza or because it was inappropriate, or even because he may have realized Sadie was a little off her rocker.  Others purport that Sadie was in love with Simon Brown’s brother, and this was the man mentioned in her letters. Regardless, people believed the murders were to exact revenge on her former lover and his new betrothed, but these claims were unfounded and mainly based on the sensationalist headlines.

Rendering of Sadie McMullen in court.

Which, I just want to mention that while now, it being 2020 these newspaper articles are considered primary sources because they are reporting of the time.  But at the time they were not primary sources.  They were secondary and even tertiary sources.  So, whenever you’re reading historic newspapers, while they seem like primary sources, they also have a lot of their own biases.  One of those is that they’re written to sell newspapers.  A lot of these stories that come up there’s no basis in fact.  For example, Hannah said a lot of things like “She was possessed by the devil, I saw it in her eyes!” but in another article she said that Sadie would never harm a child.  So while these sources are historic, they are also very much tabloid-ish.  But that’s also the fun of Victorian news stories.  The way that they write headlines is just  so insane.  But this was essentially their Keeping Up With the Kardashians

That being said: Sadie’s trial was extraordinarily short, lasting only two days.  In fact, she was acquitted of the crimes due to insanity.  Even though all the newspapers said she didn’t seem insane, all the witnesses said she didn’t seem insane, the medical community of Buffalo believed that she had carried these acts out in an epileptoid state and that she was not at fault.  And so, the medical community decided that she should be institutionalized and treated.

Sadie was sent to the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane.  Which, by the way is very famous for its architecture, it has served as inspiration for horror movies and video games and is very haunted.  It is still an active asylum…and I attended undergrad only hundreds of feet from it.

After only a year and a half, the Asylum Superintendent, (J.B.) Andrews, said, “that she is now perfectly sane” and they just released her.  That’s it.  I thought there might be some outrage in newspapers at the time but I was reading them and they were more or less apathetic.  “Oh, yeah, Sadie got out.  She’s cured now.”  Which a) I think is rare for them to be like “Oh someone is cured of mental illness!” instead of just torturing them but also b) it’s also weird that they just didn’t report on it. 

So this begs the question…was she just faking it?  Since all these stories of her history of mental illness didn’t arise until the trial and then she was miraculously cured and let go?  Was she faking being insane to avoid the electric chair, and once she was in treatment in the asylum was just like, “Oh, wow!  I’m better now!”  It’s weird to me.

One of her descendants has talked in YouTube videos and stuff and has tried to spin it as “This is the tragic story about Sadie and mental illness” and all this stuff.  And yes, mental illness is very important to discuss—I’m not trying to crap on that—but we also cannot forget that this woman’s story wasn’t that tragic: she went to the asylum for a year and a half and was let go and she fell into obscurity.  No one knows what happened to her.  Some say she went out west to Kansas, others claim she travelled to California.  But ultimately no one knows what happened to Sadie McMullen. 

In the end Sadie lived,  a child died, and another was permanently injured because of her actions.  So yes, it’s important to focus on the mental illness part of the story it’s also important to focus on the fact that a child’s life was taken for no reason and this woman didn’t even spend much time in the asylum; they just let her go.  What’s to stop her from doing it again?  It’s a complicated issue, but I don’t know if I buy that Sadie was insane.  It seems just all too convenient that she got out after only a year: that’s unheard of.  But maybe I’m just being problematic.

So, I used a number of sources for this story.  As usual they are in the show notes. 

Stay spooky, my friends.

Sources:

A Girl’s Trial for Murder: Seventeen-Year-Old Sadie McMullen Before a Jury in Buffalo. (1891, March 6). The Evening Star, 8.

Akron Falls County Park. (n.d.). Upstate NY Photography, Waterfalls, Nature. Retrieved November 14, 2020, from https://nyfalls.com/waterfalls/akron-falls/

Ellen May “Nellie” Connor (1880-1890)—Find A… (n.d.). Retrieved November 14, 2020, from https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/117793906/ellen-may-connor

Estephe, S. (2015, November 15). Unknown Gender History: Sadie McMullen, 17-Year-Old Murderess – Akron, New York, 1890. Unknown Gender History. http://unknownmisandry.blogspot.com/2015/11/sadie-mcmullen-17-year-old-murderess.html

Her Love: The Secret of Sadie McMullen’s Hideous Crime. (1890, November 4). The Buffalo Daily Times, 1.

John Dolph (1781-1834)—Find A Grave Memorial. (n.d.). Retrieved November 23, 2020, from https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/179636329/john-dolph

Legend of Murder Creek in Akron, New York—The Tragedy of Ah-weh-hah. (n.d.). Retrieved November 14, 2020, from https://www.zeph1.com/2016/09/legend-murder-creek-akron-ny.html

Moses, J. (2016, October 27). Murder Creek: The Sorry Case of Sadie McMullen. Artvoice. https://artvoice.com/2016/10/27/murder-creek-sorry-case-sadie-mcmullen/

On Trial For Her Life. – Is Sadie M’Mullen Guilty Of Child Murder? – So Young and So Pretty—Could She Have Done Such a Deed? – What Promises to Be a Notable Case Now Before the Supreme Court at Buffalo – A Great Field Open to Insanity Experts – Meanwhile, Sadie’s Indifference is Hard to Understand. (1891, March 6). The World, 3.

Parker, A. C. (1919). The life of General Ely S. Parker: Last grand sachem of the Iroquois and General Grant’s military secretary. Buffalo, N.Y. : Buffalo Historical Society. http://archive.org/details/lifeofgeneralely00parkrich

Sarah Dilley Dolph (1783-1861)—Find A Grave… (n.d.). Retrieved November 23, 2020, from https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/127942807/sarah-dolph

Schrock, F. (2014, October 31). The Legend of Murder Creek. Low Bridges: Upstate History. https://fredschrock.com/2014/10/31/the-legend-of-murder-creek/

She Killed Two Children: Was Committed to a Hospital as Insane and is Now Liberated and Cured. (1893, August 22). Portland Daily Press, 1.

The Legend Of Murder Creek | Erie County Parks, Recreation and Forestry. (n.d.). Retrieved November 14, 2020, from https://www2.erie.gov/parks/index.php?q=legend-murder-creek

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