More than 140 years ago, the murder of a young woman in Madison and the resulting trial of a Methodist minister for the crime gripped much of the nation. And then in 1978, the 100th anniversary of the murder, the case hooked Joel Helander, Guilford’s town historian.
Did the Rev. Herbert H. Hayden feed Mary Stannard arsenic and stab her in the neck on her 22nd birthday because she had told him, in the wake of their illicit affair, that she was carrying their child? Or is it conceivable the second suspect in the case, the Stannards’ neighbor, Ben Stevens, could have done such a thing?
These questions have riveted and even haunted Helander, he says as he sits on the back deck of his home overlooking Long Island Sound. “I lived this story in 1978-79,” he says. “I got fixated on it. It’s a gripping story, and all the actors have descendants, some of them still living around here. I have interviewed several. It’s a dark stain, a very sensitive subject.”
“This story was sensational back in its day and it still attracts much attention,” Helander says. “The story revives itself every so often.”
What led him to the case was a meeting in 1971 with Laurence Salisbury, then retired from the U.S. State Department and living in Guilford. Helander was told Salisbury had researched a Madison murder. Helander, who was recording historical reminiscences, was intrigued. “I wanted to see what he had,” Helander recalls. “Eventually I inherited his files. [Salisbury died in 1976.] It was enough to start me on the trail.”
His work led to an 87-page self-published book, Noose and Collar: The Story of the Rockland Murder, Madison, Connecticut. (Rockland is a small section in the northern part of town.) After the title page comes this line: “To Laurence Salisbury, who wanted to write it, this volume is dedicated.”
And now comes one of those periodic revivals of interest in the case, spurred by a serendipitous discovery. “After my mom died last year, we had to clean out her house,” Helander says. “And in the closet of my old bedroom I found a sealed box with 100-plus copies of my book from the second printing. They were in mint condition. It was a delightful surprise.”
Helander offered the books to R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison and Breakwater Books in Guilford. I came across the book at R.J. Julia and bought it on impulse, having never heard of the crime — like many in Connecticut, I imagine — but curious about the murder and trial.
"For the state of Connecticut, the Rockland murder was nothing short of a tragedy. It was a failure of justice in that our highest state court failed to avenge a murder."
“I didn’t come to a clear conclusion,” Helander says, as to whether Hayden was Stannard’s killer. “I leaned heavily on Ben Stevens as a second suspect. But he didn’t have the motive that Hayden did.” Helander notes in the book that Hayden’s livelihood and reputation would have been ruined if the public learned he had fathered an illegitimate child.
At the book’s conclusion, after describing the four-month trial that attracted newspaper reporters from across the country to New Haven but that ended with a hung jury, Helander wrote: “For the state of Connecticut, the Rockland murder was nothing short of a tragedy. It was a failure of justice in that our highest state court failed to avenge a murder.”
Helander tells me that in the years since he wrote his book he has reached a different opinion as to the identity of the murderer. “There is no doubt in my mind that Rev. Hayden was guilty of murder and got away with it,” Helander says.
“What changed my mind was O.J. Simpson,” he adds, citing the notorious murder trial which led to a controversial acquittal. “Hayden and O.J. are companion cases,” Helander says. “The FBI talks about ‘the guilty man syndrome’: guilty people are calm, almost indifferent. Rev. Hayden was strutting around the courtroom, greeting friends.” (Simpson maintained a similar demeanor.)
“All the evidence in both cases was convincing,” Helander says. “The jurors just couldn’t handle it. Both defendants were icons; O.J. on a national level and Hayden in the community. You trust your minister.”
In Hayden’s trial, Helander notes, the detailed testimony from medical experts (some of them from the Yale School of Medicine) was so technical that “the jurors couldn’t understand it.” The key piece of evidence was the substantial amount of arsenic — “enough to have killed everyone in Rockland,” according to Hayden’s arrest warrant — found in Stannard’s body during one of the autopsies.
Hayden had admitted buying arsenic on Sept. 3, 1878: the day of the murder. He told the druggist he needed it to kill rats in his barn. “What he never anticipated,” Helander says, “was an autopsy that would discover arsenic in Mary Stannard’s stomach.”
Helander believes Hayden gave Stannard the arsenic under the pretense it was a medicine that would terminate her apparent pregnancy. (Later it was revealed she was not pregnant after all.) “But the arsenic didn’t do the job right away. So he pulled out his knife and finished her off” by slitting her throat.
“I’m going to show you something,” Helander tells me. Then he slowly unwraps a pillowcase to reveal an antique-looking knife with a bone handle and 8-inch blade. “This was found 32 years after the trial in the walls of a house where Hayden lived. Ben Stevens’ great-granddaughter found it and gave it to me. But this was the same house that Ben Stevens’ grandson lived in. The question arises: was it planted there to incriminate Hayden and not Stevens?”
Helander shows me another book that examines the murder: Virginia McConnell’s Arsenic Under the Elms, published in 1999. “By the time you finish her chapter on Hayden, there’s no doubt he committed the murder,” Helander says. “I worked with her extensively.”
Helander has returned many times to the footpath and what Rocklanders called “the Big Rock” where Stannard was slain. “It’s a forsaken spot, a little bit eerie.”
“This continues to haunt people,” he says. “And it continues to haunt me.”