It happened in an instant.
On August 24, 1844, Martha Rugg and a male friend were standing on Table Rock, then a sizeable rock shelf that projected from the top of the Niagara River gorge close to the Canadian Horseshoe Falls.
Noticing some flowers growing in a thin layer of earth at the edge of the rock platform, Martha walked over to pick them. As she reached the edge the earth suddenly gave way. Her friend shot out his arm to grab her but caught only her shawl which quickly came loose.
With a piercing scream, Martha dropped some 120 feet into the gorge, landing on a pile of jagged rocks. Witnesses flew down a nearby spiral stairway to her rescue. When they reached Martha she faintly whispered, “Pick me up.” She was carried up the steps and over to the Clifton House Hotel at the foot of Clifton Hill. She died there three hours later.
For many years dramatic incidents involving death or a near death have been a part of the Niagara Falls story. Most of these incidents, such as the one about Martha, were the result of an accident.
The slightly bizarre story of Arthur Hoyt Day, however, was a notable exception. A death was involved but it was not due to an accident. Day had come to Niagara Falls not to enjoy the beauty, majesty and history of the area. He came here with murder on his mind.
On Sunday, July 27, 1890, the 26- year- old Day along with his wife Desire and his sister Mary Quigley travelled by train from their Rochester, New York home to Niagara for, as the two ladies were told, a day of sightseeing.
After arriving in Niagara Falls, New York, the trio crossed the Railway Suspension Bridge (it was located where the Whirlpool Rapids Bridge is now) and began walking along the Canadian side of the Niagara River gorge towards the whirlpool.
According to Mary Quigley’s later testimony, she eventually became tired and sat down on a rock to rest while her brother and Desire walked on a bit further. She could see Day with his wife immediately in front of him standing a short distance away at the very edge of the gorge. Her attention was then drawn to something else for a moment and when she next looked for her brother and sister-in-law, she saw only Arthur. He was waving a black handkerchief and motioning for her to come over to him. Desire was nowhere in sight.
When Mary reached him, Day quickly and calmly admitted he had pushed his wife over the bank because “I wanted to get rid of her.” Telling his sister not to go the police, he handed her a train ticket to get home and then disappeared. When she next saw him three days later back in Rochester, he told her he was feeling only some regret for what he had done.
What Mary Quigley did not know, however, was that 15 days before the Niagara trip, Arthur had married a Lizzie Breen when, as he later admitted, they were both very drunk. Since then he had been maintaining two households. Realizing this arrangement could not last long, he decided that Desire, his wife of 8 years, had to go. He then organized the fateful excursion to Niagara Falls.
After Day moved back in with Lizzie, she began having some concerns about her new husband. For one thing, he kept talking in his sleep, saying such things as “There she goes over.” She also began hearing rumours that he was already married.
Lizzie finally went to the police who soon after arrested Day for bigamy. Now a large problem arose: Desire could not be found. Then came a break in the case. When the police questioned Mary Quigley, she broke her silence and told the story of the July 27th trip.
She was then brought back to Niagara Falls. On August 10th, Mary took American and local authorities to the spot along the gorge where Desire had been pushed over the edge. After a difficult search, the victim’s body, badly decomposed, was found on the rocks below. Arthur Hoyt Day was then extradited and charged with murder. He was taken to Welland, some 20 miles west of Niagara Falls, and lodged in the Welland County jail there.
The trial was held on October 8, 1890 in Welland. The case had created such a sensation that the court room was jammed with spectators and hundreds of others who had hoped to watch the proceedings had to be turned away.
Day appeared impeccably dressed, including a red flower in his suit coat lapel. He pleaded not guilty.
The Crown’s case rested largely on the testimony of Mary Quigley while the defense tried its best to discredit her testimony because of her past. Mary, who was described in the press as “hard-looking,” had been married four times, arrested on numerous occasions and at one time had been the madam of a Lockport, New York, brothel.
For his part, Day said that after reaching the Canadian side of the Niagara River, he and Desire had quarrelled. They had then parted company and he hadn’t seen her since. Later, his story changed and he testified that she had slipped while trying to pick some berries. He never could explain, however, why he had not reported her lengthy disappearance or accident.
The 12-man jury brought in a guilty verdict. The judge then pronounced the death penalty and directed that Day “be taken from the prison where you are confined on December 18th and hanged by the neck until you are dead and may the Lord have mercy on your soul.”
The hanging took place on gallows set up outside the courthouse on East Main Street in Welland. As the Welland Tribune reported: “About 70 persons witnessed the execution, Niagara Falls town being especially well represented. The wind was raw and whilst waiting for the grievesome event many kept warm by vigorous marching and counter marching.”
Smartly dressed as always and with the usual flower in his lapel, Day was lead to the gallows at 7:55 a.m. He maintained his innocence to the end, accusing his sister of having lied at the trial and being the one really responsible for Desire’s death. His arms had already been pinioned and now his legs were bound and the black cape pulled over his head. At exactly 7:57, as the Lord’s Prayer was being recited by the officiating minister, the drop was released.
As the Tribune later noted, “Arthur Hoyt Day had paid a fearful penalty for a fearful crime.”
Written By: Sherman Zavitz