A murder and suicide near Wilsonville in October of 1879 was brought to our attention when Elizabeth Risdon of Edinburg, Virginia came to Beaver City seeking information on her great— great—grandfather, Willard Sawyer. Elizabeth Risdon had learned that her ancestor had killed a widow at Wilsonville and wanted to learn the facts of the case. Twila Fults talked to Mr. & Mrs. Risdon and later found information in the Arapahoe Pioneer newspaper of October 20, 1879 concerning the case. Eula Brown remembered the case and located information in her files, which she researched in April of 1989 for Janine Bensasson—Janniere who teaches English in France and has written many articles on quilt and quilt making, who wanted the information to use as background for a story she was writing.




The following was sent to Janine Bensasson – Janniere after lengthy research into the murder-suicide of Colby and Sawyer.


Willard Sawyer was born in 1819 in Vermont the son of Asa Sawyer one of the earliest settlers of Mt. Holly, Vermont. Willard Sawyer married Sophira Richardson of Ludlow Vermont in 1843. Together they had four children. Willard was a successful businessman and was musically gifted. He and his son ran a carriage business together. According to his own statement Willard became enamored of a beautiful woman and left his family to go west with her to start a new life. Before leaving he gave his son, A. R. Sawyer, a deed for a one—half interest in his carriage business. He also deeded his property in Ludlow Village, Vermont to his wife before leaving to share the hardships of a western life with Mrs. Harriet N. Colby.


Mrs. Harriet Colby was born to Deacon Hopkins and wife of Woodstock, Vermont in 1831. Harriet was of a promiscuous nature, which displeased her parents. She first married a man named Darrow and later married a Mr. Colby in Windsor, Vermont. He was killed during the Civil War and Harriet received a widow’s pension. The life Harriet was living was offensive to her parents and they disowned her. She had several children through the years many of who were illegitimate. Harriet placed one of her daughters in a Catholic nunnery and the girl grieved herself to death. Harriet became pregnant by a man named Meyers and tried to force him to marry her but he saw her for what she was. She moved on to another town and continued in her profession in earnest. It was at that time that Willard Sawyer fell victim to Harriet’s charms. In his own words “she proposed coming out west and held out all kinds of inducements.”


Northern Michigan was opened to settlers so Harriet and Willard Sawyer went there in 1873 where they homesteaded for about six years. Willard made many improvements on the land and sold out for a handsome profit.


They then went to Nebraska and arrived on their claims adjoining Wilsonville in 1878. Willard built a sturdy sod house with a pine wood floor and Harriet represented to people that they were distantly related although there was some suspicion as they lived together in the one room soddie. They seemed to be very ambitious and their home was decorated with plants and pictures and was neat and attractive. Mrs. Colby took in sewing and served tea to visitors in a gracious manner. She seemed to be uncommonly intelligent.


As time went by Willard Sawyer realized he had made a very foolish mistake in 1eaving his life and family in Vermont. Harriet continued in her old ways by entertaining peddlers and traveling men who repaid her with jewelry and highly colored articles of clothing. Willard in the meantime worked to improve their claims. The situation came to a climax when Harriet proposed to make their new home into a house of ill repute. He wrote a long letter addressed to “Friends of Wilsonville, Nebraska” in which he gave a short synopsis of his past life, to be published for the benefit of the living and explaining the action he was about to take. He said that he wished he could go back to seven years before when he had an amiable wife and a loving family. He said he was disgraced and did not want to continue to live. He had come to the conclusion that he would see to it that Harriet would not ruin another family. He further wrote — “My request is to bury me on my claim. Don’t bury me by the side of this old whore, if you do I will torment you by day and night.” Willard then beat Harriet to death with a hammer and in the morning went to a neighbor’s house where he borrowed a shotgun and placed it into his mouth blowing away the side of his face. His suffering was not ended then as he lived until that night suffering untold misery.


An inquest was held and Willard Sawyer’s wife was notified. The land claims and his personal property were sold at public auction all of which is in his probate records. The Arapahoe “Pioneer” newspaper ran several stories on the affair and Willard’s final letter was published. Nothing has been found in the Wilsonville newspaper.


Harriet N. Colby was murdered on the 14th of October in 1879 on the night of her 48th birthday. Willard died on the 15th.


Frank H. Nicholson, the Sheriff of Furnas County Nebraska, was called and he acted as Coroner as the official coroner was out of town. An inquest was held in Wilsonville and the Coroners Jury was composed of: James Thorne, George N. Miller, M. Backhus, A. E. Harvey, Preston Van Cleave and W. D. Kelley. They declared that it was a murder and a suicide, which was very plain as Willard Sawyer’s letter had explained his actions and guilt.


Sheriff Frank H. Nicholson was appointed by the court to be the Administrator of the estates of Harriet and of Willard, as they had not left a will to be probated. This appointment was on November 10, 1879. He discovered that Harriet Colby had a daughter named Hattie A. Whipple of South Bend, Indiana who was her only surviving heir. The sheriff had to attempt to protect and perfect the rights and interests of both Harriet and Willard’s heirs in their pre—emption claims as well as other matters. He contacted both Hattie A. Whipple and Willard Sawyer’s wife Sophira.


The sod home of Harriet and Willard was broken into and burglars took away much of the couples property which the Sheriff attempted to repossess with some success. Their personal property was then sold at auction and the money taken in was used for expenses with very little going to the heirs. The Sheriff took possession of the land, which had the following improvements — one sod house with pine floors, two windows and a door, 1 well, a cellar, six acres of broke land on the 160 acres more or less.


Sheriff Nicholson found that title papers had been filed with the U.S. on May 14, 1880 by Mr. Willis Bailey who had “Jumped the Claim”. The Sheriff then advertised to make final proof after which he was obliged to borrow $200.00 to pay for the land at the government price of $1.25 an acre. Mr. Bailey hired a lawyer to contest the Sheriffs claim but a special commissioner rejected Dailey’s claim and Sheriff Nicholson went to the Land Office at Bloomington where he perfected the title to the land. Hattie Whipple was 26 years of age so the Sheriff acted as her Administrator and the land was then sold for $350.00 to Mr. Gibson. After the expenses were paid the total left from the land and possessions of Harriet Colby was $93.50, which was sent to Hattie Whipple.


A trunk full of Harriet’s personal belongings was sent to Hattie Whipple. The only items sent to Willard Sawyer’s wife were two tuning forks!


The expenses incurred by Sheriff Nicholson were shared half and half by the two estates of Harriet and Willard. Willard’s homestead consisting of 160 acres of “wild land” with no improvements except 3 or 4 acres of new breaking was sold for $50.00 cash as no one could come from Vermont to continue settlement. Willard’s personal property is listed in his probate records and were sold at auction for $30.65. With the land sale of $50.00 the total amount received was $80.63. Expenses amounted to $36.46 leaving $42.19 to distribute to his heirs minus any other deductions. On April 1, 1880 Sophira Sawyer sent a receipt for $34.70 that she had received from her husband’s estate.




The following news story appeared in the Arapahoe Pioneer Newspaper on October 17, 1879:




A Brute near Wilsonville Pounds his Mistress to death, and he does Humanity the good Turn of Ending his own Worthless Life.


Last Thursday the report reached us of a horrible murder and suicide. The principle actor in this chapter of crimes is a man named Willard Sawyer, who for the past two years has resided on a claim near Wilsonville, and occupying the same house, is a woman of supposed bad character. Mrs. Coburn and the statement deft by Sawyer, tended to show there had been a criminal intimacy existing between them. It appears form the lay of facts know, Sawyer pounded the woman to death, but it was claimed by some who saw the corpse, she was shot, but no gun shot wounds could be found, and it was a fight, as the disorder of the room bore evidence she had made a desperate resistance and fight for her life. After killing her, Sawyer went out to one of the neighbors and borrowed a gun, and going home shot himself, blowing the entire side his head off, and strange as it may appear, he lived form the time of the shooting, 10 o’clock, until evening. He left a written statement that he was going to kill her and himself, claiming she had ruined his happiness, and he proposed to put her out of the way of doing any more damage. He stated where he came from that he had left his wife giving her all his property and coming out to this country with this woman. If our reports be true, and the murderer and his victim’s relationship are as above stated, it is but a good incident and better for the good of society. It is as it is. By next week, we will give our readers full particulars in this case.




Follow-on Pioneer story, Oct. 20th, 1879


Arapahoe Pioneer Newspaper – Arapahoe, Neb., October 20, 1879




Full Details of The Terrible Tragedy Near Wilsonville


William Sawyer Pounds His Mistress to Death With A Hammer And Then Takes a Gun and Blows His Brains Out.


By our Special Correspondent


In our last issue, we made brief mention of the horrible murder of Mrs. Harriet N. Colby who resided in the vicinity of Wilsonville, and the subsequent suicide of the perpetrator of the crime, a man by the name of William Sawyer (note – this article now calls him William when it should have been Willard). We have since been enabled to gather together all the material facts of the case, which we below present to our readers. The two persons who constitute the “Dramatis Personae” of this bloody tragedy, first moved into Furnas County and took claim near Wilsonville about one year ago, the woman Mrs. Colby representing to the people of Wilsonville that Sawyer, who came with her, was a distant relative of hers, which statement was subsequently found to be false. The man built a neat and substantial sod house on the claim of Mrs. Colby and made substantial improvements where the couple resided and appeared to the neighbors to have a community of interest. The woman drew a pension on account of the services of her deceased husband in the Army. Both were industrious and by their united labor managed to secure a comfortable likelihood. The two had not resided long in the county, however, before their relations of the couple became a matter of gossip, and were considered the no compromising a character, that their society was not desirable to most of their neighbors. They lived alone in her house with but one room, and although nothing criminal was ever discovered to their conduct their relations were not considered reputable, to say the least. The woman sewed for the neighbors, and was intelligent to a more than ordinary extent. The house was decorated with pictures and houseplants, and many other ornaments of women’s handiwork, and was as need and attractive in the interior as one will often fine.


After giving this brief description of the character of the lady, we will now proceed to the tragedy itself. The first indication the neighbors head of the matter, was on the morning of Wednesday, the 15th day of October. A neighbor by the name of Everett, we believe, was riding by the house and saw the man Sawyer lying by a small haystack, and supposed him to be asleep. When he returned demand was still there in the same position, which aroused his curiosity. He alighted and went near the man, when he discovered that the man was horribly mutilated nearly the whole side of his face blown off, and a shotgun lying by his side. He summoned the neighbors, and an examination was had. The position of the man, and of the gun indicated that the shot was produced by his own hand. He had placed the muzzle of the gun into his mouth, and fired, blowing away one side of his face, his left eye, and that charge, emerged by the side of his head. In the neighbors had first thought him to be dead, but soon found that he was alive, and apparently conscious. No sign of life was seen about the house, and a search was instituted to discover some solution of the ministry. In forcing open the door, nothing unusual was at first noted, except that a bed tick full of straw lay on the floor, and in front of the bed. A letter was found on the table, addressed to the people of Wilsonville as follows:


Friends of Wilsonville, Nebraska:


I expect to leave this earthly home and wished to leave a short synopsis of my past life, to be published for the benefit of the living, praying that I may be directed to hold out nothing but truth in my short message of facts. In the first place I had a nice home, and amiable companion as a man ever had, with which I spent 30 years of my life. Raise the family of four children, at the age of 18 the oldest daughter died, leaving one son and two daughters, the son was in Burlington, Vermont when I left home, a lovely wife and youngest daughter in Ludlow, Vermont. This H. N. C. came to the last mentioned place to give birth to an illegitimate child she picked up by one Mr. Myers of Burlington Falls, Vermont and she swore, that he tried to ruin, her but he was too smart for her as he proved her character. She made a fool of herself. After a few months this same H. N. C. moved to the next town and continued her livelihood in good earnest. There is where I stepped into favors a feel same. She proposed to coming out West, she held out all kinds of inducements. I was a fool to throw myself away. I had disgraced all my friends so that I don’t wish to see them on the shores of life. It is an awful thing. I am sensible of all the facts. How, I wish I could be placed back where I was 7 years ago. I think I would be a happy man. After I came to a sense of my conditions I gave my wife Sophie Sawyer a deed of my property which was a house in Ludlow Village, and gave to my son A. R. Sawyer, a deed of half interest, which he was in company with me in the carriage business with me, of the same town. So I gave them all I had and left myself to share the hardships of a western live with the most miserable wretch on the face of the earth. Not the one half has been told about her here. Her own father and mother disowned her. They did not attend the funeral of her first girl that she buried within a few miles from them. The other girl she put in a Catholic nunnery and she grieved herself to death. After all this H. N. C. was mad because I would not let her keep a house of ill-fame right here in this sod house. She abused me and s—–on me. I have borne it about as long as I can. I have come to the conclusion that she will not break up another family. For my life I do not value a straw. I am ruined for live. After all her meanness she will face the devil with her jewelry in the most conspicuous places. Peddlers are her best hold. You ask her how she came by her gold watch. I very well know, she was not but a few days in the place till she came out ahead with the watch, and many other things with brilliant colors. I am not telling things that somebody has told me but facts of my own observation. She is always ready to walk or ride by night or day with any stranger but prefers night. W. Sawyer.


On the margin of the paper was written in a hurried hand the following: My request is bury me on my claim don’t lay me by the side of this old whore, if you do I will torment you by day and night. ______


Which one of them and proceeded to read. He had not proceeded far before a horrified exclamation from one of the man, who had lifted one of the carpet mats, had found a large pool of clotted blood on the floor. The bed tick was raised, and there was disclosed to the sight, the dead body of Mrs. Colby with their head mutilated almost beyond recognition, with a large hole over her right ear, from whence had issued great pools of blood mixed with brains of the victim, which her long hair and plastered to the floor with her blood, a number of wounds were found on her head, three of which would have proved fatal. Her arms and hands were also cut and bruised and her cloths were torn. All seeming to indicate a deadly struggle for life on the part of the woman, and while being pursued around the room, and receiving the terrible blows of her murder. Her appeals for mercy were lost on the unresponsive air, and she had last sank to the floor and expired a victim of one of the most devilish and brutal murders ever recorded in annals of crime. Blood was spattered on the sheets which were hung on the walls and on the lamp chimney. The crime was committed with a common nail hammer as one was found which had been washed but still was spotted with blood and between the claws was found a minute piece of flesh. The character of the wounds also indicate that the hammer was the instrument of death.


The sheriff, F. H. Nicholson, was notified and proceeded to hold a Coroner’s inquest and the case being a very plain one, made double so, by Sawyer’s statement left on the table, after the hearing of the witnesses which confirmed our above report brought to the following verdict.


State of Nebraska – Furnas, County Nebraska


At an inquest held at Wilsonville, the Furnas county, on the 16th day of October 1879, before me, acting corner of said County on the bodies of William Sawyer and Harriet N. Colby lying dead by the jurors whose names are here to described, the said jurors upon their oaths do say 1st. That Harriet N. Colby now lying dead, came to her death from a nail hammer feloniously used in the hands of William Sawyer, and the said William Sawyer, came to his death by a shot gun in his own hands. In testimony whereof the said jurors have hereunto set their hand this day and year before aforesaid.


James Thorne,

George M. Miller,

M. Backhus,

A. E. Harvey,

Preston Vancleve,

W. D. Kelly.

Coroner’s Jury.


Attest: F. H. Nicholson,

Acting corner.


After the return of the corners verdict the bodies were decently interned, Sawyer being buried in the Potter’s field in the graveyard at Beaver City. While she was buried near her son’s grave, who had previously died and been buried in the Beaver City Cemetery, also.




“The Wandering Foot”


The following was given to the Furnas County Genealogical Society by Elisabet Naess Risdon while doing research on here great-great-grandfather William Sawyer. It appears to be from her family genealogical files on her family. It helps to explain some of the players in the murder-suicide story.


Saphira Elizabeth Richardson Sawyer


Saphira, daughter of Robert Hanna Cilley Richardson, was born in Strafford, Vermont on September 22nd, 1817. Her parents were days of the Portsmouth, New Hampshire area and had moved to Vermont around 1810. While in Strafford they had three girls and two boys.


Saphira was married in Ludlow, Vermont on Oct. 27th, 1841 to Willard Sawyer, the owner of a carriage and harness shop. He was son of Asa Sawyer, Sr., one of the early settlers of Mount Holly, Vermont. Sawyer Hill was named for his family. They lived for a while in Plymouth and later moved into a house at 36 Kong Street, Ludlow, Vermont and raised four children. (The house was left to Saphira buy her father.)


1. Francis and, who was born and 1840s too indicted inflammation of the bowels (appendicitis) is in 1861.


2. Alphonso R., was a veteran of the civil war who was born in 1844 and died in Florida in the summer of 1928. He married 1. Lucia Burpee, who died in 1910 and 2. Ella Brown, who died in 1932. As a young man he worked with his father in the harness shop in Ludlow, and in later years was haberdasher in Buffalo and Binghamton, New York. He had no children of his on, but adopted Andrew and Edith Babb of Binghamton.


3. Jennie was born in Plymouth on May 89th, 1847 and, on Nov. 19th, 1870 married Edson Rowland Mandigo, son of Samuel Briggs Nancy Flagg Mandigo of Clarenceville, Québec, Canada. They had two daughters; Bessie May and Daisy Maudd. Edson held several different jobs, two of which were mill worker and barber. He never seemed to be successful at any job and in October 1882 they were divorced. They were remarried on August 23rd, 1887. He was already married in Boston to a woman named Nellie Blanchard, so Jennie sent him packing and he was never seen again. After his second wife died, he married a third time to lady named Nellie Cooley. Jennie lived with her mother and brought up her two girls by catering weddings and parties. At one time she was cook for Vermont Academy, a private boy school, in Saxtons River, Vermont. At another time she was a seamstress and had a shop in Hammond Block in Ludlow.


a. Bessie was born on April 3rd, 1872. After graduation from Black River Academy in 1890, she taught in several of the local country schools. On New Year’s Day in 1896 she was married to Eugene Lovell Stoddard, son of Curtis and Abbie Parkhurst Stoddard of Proctorsville, Vermont. Eugene was owner of a trucking business. Of course in those days, horses and teams were used for hauling cloth between the local mills and the railroad station. Their children were Harold Eugene, born May 7th, 1898; Marian Irma, born May 24th, 1901: and Louise, born April 30th, 1905. Louise is still living.


b. Daisy was born on March 22nd, 1875 and married Walter Gilbert, a pharmacist from a Moorisville, Vermont where he worked in Blakely’s Pharmacy until his death in the winter of 1931. They had no children. Daisy spent several years as housemother of a sorority house at the University of New Hampshire. She died of cancer in the winter of 1939.


Let’s get back to Saphira. In 1873 her husband decided that he would go west, and left Saphira to fend for herself and her youngest child, May. Willard wrote sporadically and sent money when he felt generous. Then for several years nothing was heard from him, until one day and 1879, Saphira a received a letter from the sheriff of Furnas County, Nebraska stating that one Willard Sawyer of Ludlow, Vermont had murdered a woman and committed suicide. Saphira’s diary showed the depths of despair that would have destroyed a woman of weaker character.


She set to work at any job that would bring in a few pennies. Following her daughter’s divorce, she had two little grandchildren to raise while their mother was away at work. Saphira’s jobs included wallpapering, laying out people who had died in preparing them for funerals, selling subscriptions to magazines and organizing spiritual gatherings, which were popular at the time. Her two sisters lived nearby and were generous with food from their farms, as well as Winslow, a brother of her husband, who had a large farm in nearby Plymouth. Her son took care of his father’s business and also cared for all the legal details when the business was sold. Her youngest daughter worked for many years in a local dry goods store until she married Mahlon Wilder, a widower with one growing daughter.


Saphira was a wonderful needlewoman and made many rugs and quilts, as well as all of the cloths for her girls. One quilt in particular, made around 1852 has been handed to the oldest girl in each generation and is now in my possession. Its pattern is, “The Wandering Foot” or turkey tracks, interspersed with blocks of flowers embroidered in wool. The wandering foot pattern is supposed to bring bad luck to any young bride who owns it unless there is embroidery added. Legend says that the husband will leave home and not return. Even though embroidery was added, this quilt brought bad luck to both Saphira and Jennie, who embroidered a spray of blackberries in one corner when she was six years old.


Saphira died in her own home on June 2nd, 1903 with her family at her bedside. Her obituary said that she was much slowed by all who knew her.


Elisabeth Naess Risdon