Brutal murder, illicit relationship sparked hanging
By FRANK BOYETT, Gleaner Columnist
At a distance of 120 years the hurry to hang Caton appears a little unseemly. I don't think there's any question Caton and his mistress cruelly murdered Caton's wife -- hanging her from a rafter and beating her to death after first attempting to poison her with a doctored fried egg -- but the 1885 press coverage of the case is freighted with a certain lynch-mob mentality that sets my teeth on edge.
The Louisville Courier-Journal was not immune to the feeding frenzy, headlining the case "Infamy Incarnate" and "The Wife Made the Servant of A Mistress and The Beast of Burden for A Husband's Children." But the day after Caton's execution the C-J story took a more measured stance:
"Although there is not a man in the county who does not believe that Caton committed the crime for which he was hanged, yet the more intelligent class feel that his trial and condemnation was hasty, it being a compromise between mob law and a partial jury."
Illicit sex was the most likely reason for the high state of public indignation. Caton, who had buried two previous wives, had been carrying on with Josephine Fritz for several years prior to marrying his third wife. The wife, Hester Peters, was a widow who had come into ownership of a fine farm through her husband's death.
"That the pair of fiends intended to kill the wife that they might marry and own the farm, there is not the shadow of doubt," the C-J said.
According to the 1886 "History of Union County," Caton began treating Hester more like a work animal than a wife soon after marrying her. He made her sleep in a smoky attic, and Josephine moved into the marital bed.
"She was not allowed to drink out of the family gourd, eat at the family table, sit by the fire with them, or sit in the same chairs used by them. She had an old tin plate to eat from, an oyster can to drink from, and a box to sit on." Practically every member of the family-- Caton, Josephine and Caton's four children -- used her as a punching bag and called her "Buffalo Bill."
She had to haul water and chop firewood, but also had to clear land on the farm. "The crowning act of humiliation inflicted on her was when she was compelled to wear pants."
No one outside the family actually witnessed Hester's hanging and fatal beatings, but suspicion was raised when Josephine refused to allow neighbors to help prepare the body for burial. That and the gravedigger's suspicions prompted Magistrate E.V. Lilly to exhume the body. When evidence of hanging and beating were found, Lilly gathered a posse and went to arrest Caton.
The posse arrived at the house, which was located in the river bottoms near the Henderson County line, and saw Caton's middle son, John, in the yard. They ordered him to halt, and shot him in the back when he refused. Caton then poked a gun out the door, and the posse opened fire, accidentally hitting Caton's daughter Annie, who was about 14. Caton himself was struck in the foot. The fight ended after Lilly threatened to burn the house down.
The posse took its prisoners to jail, "after successfully resisting a mob on the road who wished to lynch them," the Reporter said.
Once at jail, the girl Annie died March 7 and the oldest son, Wesley, died of "prison fever" before he could be brought to trial.
Caton's trial began under heavy guard. "The whole community stood on what might well be called a dynamite magazine, and a solitary misstep, a single awkward movement might bring about an explosion," the History of Union County says.
The trial lasted a week, and during that time the room was so full the doors had to be locked to keep out additional spectators. The jury decided the case in only 12 minutes; Caton was sentenced to be hanged May 8 -- which was his 46th birthday.
When the verdict was announced on March 23 the courtroom audience "was absolutely appalling," the history book says. "They shouted and screamed and cheered until the Court House shook to its foundations."
Josephine Fritz's trial began the following day, and she was sentenced to life in prison. She gave birth to Caton's daughter while in prison. But according to Josephine's niece, who was interviewed by Judy Jenkins of The Gleaner in 1976, the daughter never learned about her infamous parents.
Josephine was later pardoned and spent her declining years caring for the children of a Henderson family. She died on this date in 1934.
Contributed by Netta Mullin, HCH&GS
Copyright 2005 HCH&GS