Saturday, March 9, 2019

The Unsolved Murder of Ilda Collins

Ilda Collins was born in 1873 to James E Collins (1837-1909) and Nancy Calloway Collins (1840-1882). She had a number of brothers and sisters.    She was a distant cousin to Elmer Collins whom she would marry in 1897.  Elmer Jacob Collins (1872-1955) was the son of Jacob Adam Collins and Julia Jane Hitch (1838-1877). He also came from a large family.   His sister, Lutetia,  would marry Thomas Phillips and live in Delmar. Elmer and Ilda would live in the small community of Portsville on the south bank of Broad creek and the Jacob Collins Portsville Mill Pond  a few miles from Laurel.  He was farmer.  They had two daughter Hazel Marie (1897-1992) and Kathryn Ida (1899-1976).

above Elmer Collins

On April 12th 1902 according to Elmer Collins he had left his wife at the farm at 6:30 AM while he and his two daughters went to work a field a mile away planting tomato seed.  His wife was to join them after she finished working in the hen house.   When he came back an hour later he found her in the stable house with her skull bashed in and with her throat cut.  The newspapers would always refer to her as Alda Collins. 

On April 14th her funeral was held at Mount Pleasant Church, there were over 2,000 people at the church.  She was buried in the cemetery beside the church.  Later that night Elmer Collins returned to his home where Detectives arrested him for the murder of his wife.  

Little motive could be found for the murder but that his clothing had blood on them, which he had said was from when he held his dead wife in his arms after finding the body.  When he was arrested he was surrounded by hundreds of relatives and friends at his home.  His sister, Mrs Thomas Phillip, swooned and was ill for several days.  Both fathers, James Collins and Jacob Collins, proclaimed Elmer Collins innocents.

His uncle Dr J W Hitch and Dr Edward Fowler hired ex-attorney general Robert C White to defend him and obtain his release.  His relatives hired Pinkerton detectives to find the real murder and Detective Maull of the agency and W G Butler were assigned the case.   The detectives located William White Pratt alias William Waite alias Charles de shiell, a negro who would confess to the crime.  It was said that his confession was written by the detectives and he signed it.  It would later be determine he was half witted and was lying about the murder.  However he had assaulted farmer James Anderson of Delmar and he was guilty by insanity and committed to the Farmhurst Asylum.

Rev. Marion Clark, a colored minister, was arrested next but it was determined he had never ever been in Laurel so he was released.

Elmer Collins was arrested after the funeral but was bonded out for $500.  When he returned to his farm he found it had been almost destroyed by sightseers and curiosity seekers looking for souvenirs.   Governor John Hunn, Jr "Honest John"  offered a reward of $500 for the apprehension of the criminal.  Elmer's two daughters were taken to live with their grandfather, Jacob Collins, until this was over with.

His wife’s sister, Sarah Virginia Collins (1861-1918), had married William Luther Elzey of Exmore Va.  Her other sister, Annie May Collins (1865-1950), had married William E. Thomas of Franktown, Va.  When Sarah Elzey died in 1918, William Luther Elzey would marry the other sister, Rose Otehia Collins (1871-1954).  Elmer Collins was a frequent visitor to the Exmore, Virginia area.   After Elmer’s release on bond he attempted to visit Exmore for the wedding of his brother Harvey (Hobbs) B. Collins to Alcora West but people thought he was trying fled so he came back to Laurel.

People were split over rather he killed her or not and it became quite bitter between the two groups.  Captain James Smith who supported Collins found his hog with his throat cut.

A couple of weeks after Mrs. Collins murder another murder of a woman occurred about a mile away.  Mrs. Kate Riggins 87 years old.  She was found in the river with her apron strings tied to a bush. 

On October 16th 1902 a jury in Georgetown Delaware indicted Elmer Collins with these words “Elmer Collins did feloniously kill and murder his wife Ilda D, Collins on the twelfth day of April, 1902”. He was committed to the Georgetown Jail.

The murder trial started in March 1903, lasted nine days.  It was tried by Chief Justice Lore and associated Judges Grubb and Pennewell.  The courthouse was packed and the on lookers in the court house got a surprise when 34 jurors were eliminated and 18 talesmen ( person added to a jury usually from among bystanders to make up a deficiency in the available number of jurors) had to be selected from the on lookers.  There was a rush for the door but the bailiff stopped the 65 on lookers and 18 were eventually selected.   There still was not a clear motive for the murder.  The main evidence was the blood stained overalls and the appearance of May Rhoads (Rhodes) who said she “made love” (kissing and embracing) to Elmer Collins and that he didn’t love his wife.  Henry Niblett of Sharptown said he heard Elmer praying and heard him say he killed his wife.  Henry Culver from Delmar said Nilbett was not to be believed. Harrison Wrotten said he heard threats of “I will kill you” coming from the Collins house the night before the murder.  Six people from Dorchester County said Wrotten was a liar. The courthouse was packed.   

Perhaps the most damaging testimony was from May Rhoads (Rhodes).  She told the Jury she had gone to school with Elmer Collins and in the past year had received four letters from him saying he loved her.  She however burnt the letters.  She also met him in the woods where they kissed and embraced.  Elmer said yes they had gone to school together but the most contact he had with her after school was to say hello when they would meet.  Another witness said May had wrote the letters herself.   May said in the fourth letter Collins had said he would put his wife six foot under.  May had said to reporters that she would like to pursue a career on stage but as of yet had not accepted an offer.
May Rhoads on the stand 

On March 25, 1903 at 10:37pm Elmer Collins was acquitted of the murder of his wife, after three hours the jury returning a verdict of not guilty.

After the trial Elmer would move to the Elizabeth City - Newport News Virginia area taking with him his daughters.  He would marry again this time to Ella Lee Barney (1870-1960).  He would continue to be a farmer.  Elmer would die in 1955 in Hampton Va.  His daughters would marry; Hazel Marie (1897-1992) married Richard Hampden Nottingham (1893-1956) of Exmore Va. in 1917 and Kathryn Ida would marry Benjamin H Cordrey of Laurel. Kathryn was a school teacher in Laurel.

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