Lovestruck Minister Fascinates Media After Committing this Grisly Crime

Lovestruck Minister Fascinates Media After Committing this Grisly Crime

Khalid Elhassan - October 25, 2018

Crawfordsville is a small town in western Indiana, where seemingly little happens. Its main historic distinction is probably that Lew Wallace, a failed Civil War general but successful post-war writer, penned Ben Hur: A Tale of Christ while residing there. Crawford has another distinction: it was the site of a once-famous Gilded Age murder, stemming from a love triangle involving a reverend, his wife, and his lover.

The main culprit was William F. Pettit, a New Yorker with rough edges from an early age, who hung out with hooligans, dabbled in crime, and eventually did a few months in jail for stealing a pistol. Upon his release, he became a schoolteacher, a fervent Methodist, and an unordained revival preacher. That was how he came into contact with Hattie Sperry, an older schoolteacher. They got married, but it was not to be a happy union: he liked carousing with his buddies, and chasing women. The couple eventually moved to Indiana, where, concealing his past, William became an enthusiastic Freemason, and worked his Masonic connections into getting a gig as an ordained Methodist minister in 1886. He eventually ended up at Shawnee Mound Methodist Episcopal Church, in Crawfordsville, Indiana.

Lovestruck Minister Fascinates Media After Committing this Grisly Crime
Crawfordsville, in Montgomery County, Indiana. Wikimedia

Deadly Love Triangle: The Reverend, Hattie Pettit, and Elma Whitehead

If Mrs. Pettit thought that her husband would mend his ways now that he was a man of the cloth, she thought wrong. William – now the Reverend Pettit – continued carousing and womanizing. He soon earned a reputation pinching many of his female congregants, and for copping a feel every now and then. His most significant pursuit would be of Elma “Clementine” Whitehead, the widowed daughter of David Meharry, a founder and patron of Pettit’s church, and one of the richest men in the region.

Elma was no beauty, and as one contemporary reporter unchivalrously put it: “the most liberal of men would hesitate to call her attractive“. However, what she lacked in looks, she more than made up for in wealth: she was one of western Indiana’s richest widows, which made her one of the region’s most desirable women. Reverend Pettit had helped Elma’s father write his will in 1888, and was thus aware that she would inherit most of his estate, valued at $40,000 – a hefty sum back then. She also had a nice nest egg of her own, that she had inherited from her late husband.

It was not long before William, who had first started to frequent the Meharrys’ in a quest to seduce their maid, set his sights higher, and began pursuing the rich mistress, instead. Elma, who was often surrounded by the whiff of scandal, was game. Her father was the local Postmaster, but when he took ill, she took over his duties, and got in the habit of tampering with the mail. It led to an official investigation and censure. What got tongues wagging even more furiously in that straitlaced era, however, was her adulterous affairs.

Lovestruck Minister Fascinates Media After Committing this Grisly Crime
Shawnee Mound Methodist Episcopal Church, from the Meharry family book. Roots Web

One of them in particular, with the married publisher and editor of several regional newspapers, was carried out so openly with unchaperoned nighttime rides and unaccompanied trips throughout the Midwest, so as to scandalize the locals. It finally ended when Elma’s family threatened to do her lover in if he showed up in their neck of the woods again. Choosing discretion as the better part of valor, he stayed far away from Shawnee Mound.

As to William Pettit, within a year of his arrival in Shawnee Mound, the Reverend and Elma Whitehead were lovers. The adulterous affair was an open secret as the duo, oblivious to or reckless of local opinion, were seen traveling together, unaccompanied, all over the region, before returning late at night. They were also observed mooning over each other, and before long, many locals were referring to Elma as Reverend Pettit’s “second wife”.

Lovestruck Minister Fascinates Media After Committing this Grisly Crime
Reverend William F. Pettit. Historical Crime Detective

Murder Most Foul

Things got even steamier between William Pettit and Elma Whitehead when Hattie Pettit left town in June of 1889, for a month long visit to an old friend in South Bend. With his wife away, the Reverend moved into the Meharry residence, into a room across the hall from Elma’s. The maid, whom William Pettit had hounded before going after her mistress, heard them having sex at night. Others observed the duo acting intimately when they thought they were alone together. It was during this time that they reportedly hatched the plot to murder the Reverend’s wife.

On July 1st, 1889, shortly before his wife’s return, William tried to buy some strychnine from a merchant, but it was out of stock. When he asked that some be ordered for him, something about the Reverend’s manner made the merchant uneasy, and he declined. It was not a huge setback, as William had some leftover from the previous summer – he just was not sure whether it was still good. He tested on his daughter’s dog, and the pooch promptly keeled over. The plot was on.

Hattie Pettit returned on July 12th, and was dead within days, having been poisoned on at least three occasions. Only her husband and Elma Whitehead fed her during that period, and witnesses reported them feeding the victim shortly before she went into convulsions. A doctor friend of William, treated the victim. She actually suspected that she had strychnine poisoning, but thought she had ingested it accidentally while cleaning the cupboards a day earlier. Her husband dismissed that as womanly silliness, and convinced the doctor that she had malaria. Unsuspecting to the last, Hattie Pettit was grateful to Elma for nursing her, begging her at some point: “Don’t go away. I want you in the house“. She died on July 17th, 1889.

Lovestruck Minister Fascinates Media After Committing this Grisly Crime
Elma Whitehead. Historical Crime Detective

Reverend Pettit arranged a hurried funeral for his wife, after which her corpse was swiftly sent to her hometown for burial. Between that and the adulterous affair with Elma, suspicions sprouted that Hattie Pettit had been poisoned. Public pressure eventually convinced the authorities to act, and in November of 1889, Mrs. Pettit’s corpse was ordered exhumed and examined. Laboratory results revealed large amounts of strychnine in her body. Prosecutors immediately sent agents to arrest Pettit in Ohio. In the meantime, one of his fellow Freemasons and Methodist clergymen got Elma to tell him of her adulterous affair, and reveal that she had agreed to marry William Pettit three weeks before his wife’s death. However, she denied having played any role in her murder. Within days, he was testifying before a grand jury about all that Elma had told him.

In January of 1890, Elma Whitehead pled the 5th Amendment against self incrimination, and refused to answer grand jury questions. She specifically objected to the question: “State whether there was any talk or understanding of marriage, some time, had between you and said Pettit: said talk or agreement occurring prior to the 17th day of July, 1889“. She also refused to answer the question: “State whether or not there was any understanding or agreement between William F. Pettit and you as to marriage, after the 17th day of July, 1889“.

Lovestruck Minister Fascinates Media After Committing this Grisly Crime
The Shawnee Mound parsonage. Pintrest

Trial and Aftermath

The grand jury returned indicted Elma Whitehead and Pettit for first-degree murder. He was already in custody, so a warrant was issued for her immediate arrest. As a local newspaper described what happened when the Sheriff arrived: “A cheerful fire burned on the hearth and it seemed almost sacrilege to break the pleasure of that circle with such cruel news. After discussing the weather for a few minutes, the deputy told Mrs. Whitehead he had a warrant for her arrest. The information was received with composure by herself and her father. It was not until a half later when Mrs. Whitehead had prepared herself for the cold, cheerless drive before her that she evinced signs of emotion. Her admirable self-control gave way then, and she cried without restraint“.

She arrived at the courthouse jail, which already hosted her coconspirator, William Pettit, around midnight. A comfortable couch had been arranged for her, and she was given the most commodious and cheerful – relatively speaking – cell in the establishment. Newspapers reported that she evinced remarkable composure, but doubted whether she had managed to get any sleep that night. The following morning, upon waking up, Pettit was served with his first-degree murder charges.

In March of 1890, the court granted William Pettit a continuance. The prosecutor then sought a continuance for Elma Whitehead, as well. In support of the state’s motion, the prosecutor amended the charging documents to aver that, two weeks before Mrs. Pettit’s death, her husband had proposed marriage to Elma Whitehead. She was alleged to have accepted, the marriage to occur when William Pettit was “left alone”. As reported by a local newspaper, the prosecutor further alleged: “many secret conversations and much correspondence between the two defendants, and charges them with criminal intimacy, both immediately before and after Mrs. Pettit’s death.” The court granted the prosecution’s request for a continuance.

While the evidence seemed strong against William, there was widespread public doubt about whether he would get convicted. Aside from his having many powerful friends, Elma funded his defense, paying for top-notch lawyers. She was eventually released on bail, and her trial was delayed indefinitely. She immediately hit the road along with her father, traveling throughout the US for a couple of years to avoid getting subpoenaed. William Pettit remained behind bars until the trial.

The doubters proved wrong, and a jury had little trouble convicting the reverend in late 1890, and sentencing him to life with hard labor. He contracted tuberculosis in prison, but even as he wasted away, he appealed his verdict, his legal bills still footed by the absent Elma. He won and was granted a new trial in 1893, but died on the same day the ruling was handed down. Elma Whitehead, in failing health since her lover’s death, died five years later.

Lovestruck Minister Fascinates Media After Committing this Grisly Crime
Crawfordsville today. City of Crawfordsville


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Crawfordsville Weekly Journal, January 25th, 1890 – A Joint Indictment Against Mrs. E. C. Whitehead and W. F. Pettit

Crawfordsville Weekly Journal, October 25th, 1890 – The Corpus Delicti: Judge Snyder Rules That It Has Been Established; The Testimony of the Witnesses; Dr. Yeager on the Stand Two Days

Crawfordsville Daily Journal, November 6th, 1890 – Defense Opens: A Full Outline of What the Defense Will Endeavor to Prove Set Forth

Daily Argus News, The, March 17th, 1890 – Facts and Fancies Gathered Here and There About People and Things

Historical Crime Detective – Guest Feature Story: Murder and Masonry, 1890, by Dr. Barry Mason

Indianapolis Journal, March 15th, 1890 – Rev. Mr. Pettit and Mrs. Whitehead