When I was a senior in high school, my English teacher, Evan Williams, asked every student to select a book, read it, and then do a report on it. I don’t recall what book I chose, but Mr. Williams didn’t like my choice. He suggested that I read the book Catch-22 by Joseph Heller instead. I had never heard of the book and remember very little about it other than that the main character was an Air Force pilot named Yossarian and that it was set during WWII. What I do remember was that I was laughing out loud at times while reading it, which is something that I rarely ever do.
Since that book came out, the phrase Catch-22 has become part of the lexicon and one that I used myself ever since I read that book. The idea is simple: it’s a paradoxical situation in which one is trapped due to contradictory rules or conditions. For example, people entering the job market can’t get the job because they lack experience, but without the experience, there is no way for them to get the job needed to gain that experience. Or, a person who is homeless seeks a job so that they can get a place to live, but they can’t apply for the job because they have no address to place on the application.
Well, today I have a great, long-forgotten story from the early 1900s that could be interpreted as a Catch-22 situation. It’s the story of a New Jersey man who was sentenced to die and then forgotten about by the system. He would simply disappear into the walls of the state’s prison system. A glitch in the law caused him to remain on death row indefinitely. If he asked the courts to reopen his case, there was a slight possibility that he could walk free. Yet, in the process of having his case reopened, he could be thought sane, which would almost certainly result in his execution. So, the only way for him to definitely stay alive was to remain on death row. It was a Catch-22 situation.
The man who would find himself in this Catch-22 situation was Archibald Herron. He was born on April 26, 1869, in Ireland and emigrated to the United States as a young boy. A blacksmith by trade, Archie and his wife Margaret would settle in Metuchen, New Jersey to raise their son, Archie, Jr.
A brief, front-page article in the September 21, 1906 publication of The Daily Home News read, “METUCHEN MAN GETS 30 DAYS. Archie Herron, of Metuchen, arrived in jail this morning for a term of thirty days, charged with disorderly conduct. Recorder Prickitt committed him.”
Recorder Prickitt was Reverend Samuel Brown D. Prickitt, who had come to Metuchen about twelve years earlier to preach in the Methodist church. After a two-year stint, he opted to retire and became the editor of the Metuchen Recorder. Prickitt was highly regarded and served as Metuchen’s recorder (magistrate) for a brief time.
Archie had been brought before Recorder Prickitt before, mostly for intoxication and disorderly conduct, but also for failure to support his wife and child. Reverend Prickitt had saved Archie from jail several times, but for some unknown reason, on that September day, he was left with no choice but to throw Archie in the slammer. Archie insisted that he was not drunk. Instead, he claimed that he had been overcome by the heat, even though records show that the high temperature on the day of his arrest was only 80º F (26.7º C). Prickitt released Archie after he had served ten days in jail.
Archie would brood over Prickitt’s decision to lock him up for the next two years. He seemed to grow angrier with each passing day and continually threatened revenge. Reverend Prickitt laughed at Archie’s escalating threats, but the clergyman’s friends and family became concerned. They appealed to Marshal Enos Fouratt for help and he agreed to keep an eye on Archie.
On Wednesday, July 15, 1908, Archie went to visit George Markey, an acquaintance who was being held in jail on a larceny charge. Archie would return later in the day to talk to Markey. It’s unknown what had been discussed between the two, but reporters later speculated that visiting Markey in jail fueled Archie’s anger toward Prickitt to the boiling point.
That same afternoon, around 3:30 p.m., Reverend Prickitt and his son Charles had been trying to fix a pump in the clergyman’s Clive Avenue home. Unable to do so, the elder Prickitt decided that he would take a walk downtown and talk to a repairman. He never got that far. Just as he was walking away from his son’s house, which was next door to his, Archie Herron suddenly appeared and got in Prickitt’s face.
“What are you about, man?” Archie asked. “What are you trying to do?”
Before Reverend Prickitt could say anything, Archie Herron fired a shot that passed through Prickitt’s heart and lung. At that moment, son Charles turned and saw Archie standing there with the smoldering gun still in his hand. Archie then stated, “That will finish you. You will die!”
As Prickitt fell into his son Charles’ arms, he said, “Catch me. I’m shot.” Charles moved his father to the steps on the side of the house and took a few footsteps in his pursuit of Archie. 67-year-old Reverend Prickitt’s last words to his son were “Let him go.”
Charles’ wife, who had been in their house at the time, heard the shooting and emerged to see Archie making his escape. She questioned what he had done and he replied, “You will find out soon enough.” When she asked what his name was, he replied “Archibald Herron.”
And then he was gone.
Archibald Herron Wanted Dead or Alive
Archie wasn’t hard to find. He went straight home, walked into the house, and asked his wife if she had anything for him to eat. He then sat down as she placed the food on the table. Mrs. Herron then went out into the yard. Moments later, a posse led by Constable Adolph Cornish arrived and they demanded that Archie open the door. He refused and retreated to his second-floor bedroom. Marshal Fouratt then arrived and proceeded to bash the exterior door open.
Cornish took his first couple of steps up the stairs, only to be pulled back down by the other men. A heated war of words then broke out between Archie and the men downstairs. They warned Archie that he needed to surrender, or they would take him dead or alive.
The sound of Archie’s gun firing echoed throughout the house. Every man on the ground floor looked at each other to see if anyone had been shot. All were unharmed.
Could Archie have pointed the gun at himself? Mrs. Herron quickly ruled that out. “No; I don’t believe my husband has committed suicide. I know him.”
A little later, Archie appeared at the upstairs door holding his hands up so that everyone could see that he didn’t have a gun. Marshal Fouratt took him into custody as another officer raced up the stairs to locate the weapon. The loaded gun was found in a cigar box.
As Archie was being readied to leave the house, he asked for his coat and handkerchief. It was then noticed that one of his fingers was bleeding profusely. Archie explained that the gun had gone off accidentally and that his finger may have been injured then. He said that he had enjoyed watching how scared everyone was from his upstairs bedroom window and added, “Why I wouldn’t have shot any of you.” It was later determined that Archie’s bullet had been fired upward, confirming that the men downstairs had not been his target.
The men repeatedly asked Archie why he shot Reverend Prickitt, but he never offered up a direct answer. He just kept repeating, “I’m satisfied; I shot him all right, and I’m satisfied.”
A crowd of an estimated two hundred people stood outside as Marshal Fouratt and Archie emerged from the house. The mob was angry and murmurs of hanging him on the spot could be heard. To get him out of there quickly, the decision was made to place 49-year-old Archie in a doctor’s automobile and take him to the county jail in New Brunswick, about seven miles (11.25 km) away.
There, Herron was questioned by a reporter and stated, “They hounded me,” referring to Marshal Fouratt and Reverend Prickitt. “They came to my house two years ago, and when I was ill from the heat they said I was drunk and sent me to jail. They were after me other times, too.” He continued, “I was working as a blacksmith in the Perth Amboy Iron Metal Company’s shops that summer and the heat was awful. It made me ill and I had to quit and go home. Next day I went back, but I couldn’t stand it, and I had to go home again. I was lying in my bed when they came and said I was drunk and sent me to jail.”
Mrs. Herron refused to visit Archie at the jail. “If Archie tells you to ask me to come see him, don’t let me know of it. He committed an awful crime, and must bear the consequences alone.”
On Monday, July 20, a grand jury indicted Archie for murder. He was later brought before New Jersey Supreme Court Justice James J. Bergen and the prosecutor asked, “To this, what do you plead?” Archie’s reply was “Not guilty.”
Sidenote: Prior to 1947, the court system in New Jersey had a different structure from how it is set up today. The highest court in the state was the Court of Errors and Appeals. The New Jersey Supreme Court was an intermediate appellate court. Each of the five Supreme Court justices was required to preside over county-level courts. The odd thing about this structure was that Judge Bergen was presiding over Archie Herron’s case in county court. If the case was appealed, it would go to the Supreme Court, on which Bergen sat. If further appealed to the Court of Errors and Appeals, Bergen sat on that bench also. As a sidenote to this sidenote, Bergen was also one of the three judges who decided to uphold the decision in the Minerva Miller podcast.
One week after Archie was indicted, a jury of twelve men was impaneled. When the trial began the next day, two alienists – what we call psychiatrists today – told of how Archie had been drinking for years and gave lengthy testimony as to Archie’s sanity. Dr. W.E. Ramsay summed up the opinion of both doctors in one sentence: “My opinion is that the man is insane.”
Archie refused to take the stand in his own defense and there were repeated calls for Mrs. Herron to testify. She did not show up for court that day, so a court order was issued and an officer was sent to bring her in. Unfortunately, due to the stress, she had collapsed and her doctor insisted that she would not be able to testify that day. Justice Bergen ordered that the trial proceed without her and Archie’s lawyer, retired Judge Charles T. Cowenhoven, did not object.
At 4:25 that afternoon, the jury delivered their verdict.
“Gentlemen of the jury,” Clerk Howard Wesner began, “Have you agreed upon your verdict?”
“We have,” was the reply.
They were then asked, “Who shall speak for you?”
“What say you, Mr. Foreman? Do you find the prisoner at the bar guilty or not guilty?”
The foreman’s reply was “We find him guilty of murder in the first degree.”
Thirteen days and one hour after Reverend Prickitt had been murdered, Justice Bergen requested that Archie stand up. “Prisoner, the penalty for your crime is death.” Bergen continued, “The Sheriff will be served with the necessary papers to take you to the State prison and you are hereby sentenced to be executed according to the law during the week of September 7th.”
Archie’s attorney, Judge Cowenhoven, expressed his disappointment in the decision to the press: “As the State appointed counsel for Herron I feel that I can conscientiously say that I did my best to save him from the chair. Apart from my views as a public official familiar with all the facts in the case, I have no hesitancy in saying that it is my private, honest, and deep-rooted conviction that Herron is insane and was insane when he committed the cruel murder. Understand me, my sympathies are all with the bereaved family and the afflicted community; yet, actuated solely by a righteous and fearless sense of duty, I may apply for a commission to examine Herron exhaustively and determine his mental status as exactly as it is within the power of man to do.” He added, “I will never see Archibald Herron sit in the electric chair.”
After being sentenced, Archie was led back to the jail where a reporter from the Daily Home News attempted to interview him. Through the bars of his cell, Archie stated, “No. I don’t care to make any statement; what is there to say?” As he puffed away on his pipe, Herron seemed to be unmoved by the verdict. “You can’t always judge by appearances. Maybe I take it more seriously than you think I do; but what’s the use of worrying? It’s all over and that’s all there is to it.” Regarding the trial itself, he commented, “Oh, yes, they were fair, all right. I think, though, if some things have been put up in another way it might have made some difference.”
The reporter then asked, “Do you think Mrs. Herron could have helped you if she had appeared in your behalf?”
“Yes,” was Archie’s reply.
“Why didn’t she come, then?”
“I don’t know. There were others that could’ve done me good, too, if they wanted to.”
At 8:45 on the morning of Friday, July 31, a crowd gathered as Archie boarded a trolley to be taken to the death house in Trenton, about twenty-five miles (40 km) away. Upon arrival, Archie boasted to prison clerk Irving C. Bleam “I’ll beat it.”
The next day, Archie penned a letter to President Theodore Roosevelt, which prison officials opted not to forward on:
“Trenton, New Jersey.
“Mr. Theo. Roosevelt, President:
“Dear Sir – I write again to you and demand that I get full justice as all are entitled to that. I was taken here in a great hurry before I could get my counsel that was appointed for me. I wanted to instruct him to find the guilty parties, as I am not guilty of the crime charged. No truth could be told or was told at the trial. I wrote to you from Brunswick and got no answer from my letter.
“I will give due time for an answer to this. If it is not forthcoming I must appeal elsewhere, as I demand full liberation of a full truthful trial. They told me in Brunswick they put any man on trial and in that county it is the innocent that suffers, the guilty ones go free.
“Let me hear from you by return mail as don’t wish to have to make a demand over you, but you must not compel me by silence. My suffering and persecution has been long and long suffering and I demand it to be made a case by you and not compel me to appeal elsewhere.
“State Prison, New Jersey.”
Yet, preparations for Archie Herron’s execution moved forward. On August 19, Warden Osbourne summoned six men to witness his electrocution. One of those men was Marshal Enos Fouratt.
Challenge to the Decision
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Judge Cowenhoven worked tirelessly to keep Archie out of the electric chair. Just days before that was scheduled to happen, Cowenhoven was able to secure a writ of error, having argued that Archie should have been declared insane and that Justice Bergen had erred by allowing the trial to conclude without the testimony of Mrs. Herron. This forced the case to the Court of Errors and Appeals, the highest court in the state, but they upheld Archie’s conviction on November 27th. His execution was rescheduled for 9 p.m. on Wednesday, January 27, 1909.
Meanwhile, a number of prominent physicians began to come forward with their opinion that Archie was insane. The following text appeared in the Trenton Evening Times on January 11th:
“There is one prisoner, however, in “murderers’ row” who has been giving the prison authorities a great deal of trouble. He is Archibald Herron of Middlesex County, who killed Samuel B. D. Prickitt of Metuchen, last July. Dr. Paul L. Cort and Dr. Horace Q. Norton of this city visited Herron yesterday with a view of determining, if possible, whether he is simulating insanity or is really mentally unbalanced. The physicians were reticent regarding the result of their visit, but it is strongly intimated that they believe Herron’s actions are the result of a mere spirit of deviltry.”
On January 22, with just five days to spare, Cowenhoven formally requested that Governor John Franklin Fort stay Herron’s execution, allowing for either an investigation as to his sanity or for action by the State’s Court of Pardons. Governor Fort denied the reprieve.
Fort made clear his dissatisfaction with the claim of insanity to the press: “So far as I am able to speak for this state, I want to say that New Jersey has no sympathy with ‘unwritten law’ ideas and insanity dodges resorted to these days to free men who deliberately commit murder.
“There is altogether too much of this sort of thing practiced in the courts today, and I want the people of this state and other states to know that New Jersey does not approve of such defenses in murder cases.”
On the day before the scheduled execution, Cowenhoven made a last-ditch effort to Judge John Rellstab in Mercer County court – the county where death row was located – to order a formal inquiry into Archie’s sanity. Rellstab stated that he did not doubt that an inquiry should be made but questioned whether he had any jurisdiction to do so. Rellstab ruled against Archie Herron, which was immediately followed by an appeal to a higher court. Awaiting the outcome of that decision, Governor Fort granted Archibald Herron a reprieve.
On Monday, March 22, 1909, the Court of Errors and Appeals, in a unanimous vote of 12 to 0, sustained Judge Rellstab’s decision not to order an inquiry into Archie’s sanity. On March 27th, Governor Fort signed a warrant that ordered Warden George Osborne to execute Archie within seven days, beginning Tuesday, March 30th.
It would see, that Archie Herron had run out of legal options. But, he had not.
At nearly the same moment that he received Governor Fort’s order, Osborne also received a conflicting order from Supreme Court Justice Bergen ordering an inquiry into Herron’s sanity. While Bergen wasn’t convinced of Archie’s insanity, he was the sentencing judge and felt that enough medical professionals had come forward with their opinions that Archie was insane to justify an inquiry. Under Bergen’s new order, Archie’s execution was “suspended until further orders from the court.” That last clause would hang over Archie Herron’s head for the remainder of his life.
Cowenhoven attempted to have Archie transferred to a state mental hospital but there was no provision in New Jersey law allowing that to happen. Technically, Archie was on death row awaiting execution and there was no provision in the law allowing his custody to be transferred to a psychiatric facility. Archie was on death row and that is where the law required that he stay.
Days turned into weeks, weeks turned into months, and months turned into years as experts debated as to Archie’s sanity. And the two men responsible for keeping Archie out of the chair would both pass away in 1921. It has been said that up until his death on March 9, Judge Cowenhoven tirelessly fought to get Archie off death row and into a mental institution. Then, Justice Bergen passed away on October 20th of that same year without having issued those “further orders.”
Bergen’s passing is what placed Archie Herron into a Catch-22 situation. New Jersey law at the time only allowed the presiding judge to set a date of execution. No one had the legal authority to execute Archie, none had the legal authority to transfer him to a mental institution, and none had the legal authority to release him. As long as Archie remained on death row, he could stay alive. Should he attempt to win his freedom, there was a good chance that the court would rule that he should die for his crime. It seems contradictory, but the only sure way for Archie to stay alive was for him to spend the remainder of his natural life awaiting execution on death row.
A Change in the Law
Archie was certainly on the mind of prosecutors when Bruno Hauptmann went on trial in 1935 for the abduction and murder of Charles Lindbergh Jr.; “The Trial of the Century.” There was the fear that aged Judge Thomas Whitaker Trenchard would die before all of Hauptmann’s appeals had been exhausted, placing him into the same Catch-22 situation as Herron. The law was changed to allow the presiding judge to sign a death warrant, should the original judge leave office, become ill, or die. Trenchard fooled them all and lived six years beyond Hauptmann’s 1936 execution.
But this change in the law did not retroactively apply to Archie. With no one left to fight for him, Archie Herron became New Jersey’s Forgotten Man, a name coined by the press. He would spend each day in his cell, content to just sit there and smoke his pipe. Since the death house could only hold six people, Archie was moved to a regular cellblock, even though he technically was a death row inmate. Archie never attempted to escape, even though the door was typically left unlocked most of the day. He interacted with few people, rarely ever left his cell, and his only visitors were the occasional reporter. After his conviction, his wife Margaret wrote Archie off and never came to visit him. She passed away on August 15, 1912. His son, Archibald Jr, did visit once shortly after Archie’s arrest but never came again. When a letter arrived in 1942 informing him that his son had been killed in a railroad accident, Archie refused to sign the enclosed documents and declared that he didn’t have a son.
As he grew older, newspapers would run stories about him. Every year, they would tell of how he had aged one more year and repeat the same old story of how a man ended up living his life on death row. Occasionally, a reporter would add a small detail like when Archie had to go to the hospital in 1934 and heard radio for the first time or when he saw his first movie in 1936, but the story basically remained the same. He was technically still on death row when he passed away on August 30, 1948, at 89 years of age. Archie was buried in the New Jersey State Prison Cemetery in Trenton. His tombstone simply reads “491.”
When Archie Herron first stepped into the death house in Trenton back in 1908, he told the prison clerk that he would beat it. He certainly did.
Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.