|In the early hours of April 9, 1886, Tillie
Smith, an 18 year old domestic who lived and worked at Centenary
Collegiate Institute, was raped and strangled. Her assaulted body was
left in an open field in plain view.
The murder of Tille Smith not only shocked
Victorian Hackettstown, it quickly became a sensational, closely
followed trial covered by many major market newspapers, including New
York City, Trenton and Philadelphia. The papers carried the details of
the story as it unfolded, and it was this sensational journalism
that fueled public outcry and pressured the local authorities and
police to find someone guilty of commiting the crime.
On April 28, 1886, James Titus, the man
responsible for maintenanace at the college, was arrested at his home
and formally accused of Tillie's murder. Titus was a local resident,
described by many as quiet, industrious and of exellent character.
The trial of James Titus began on September 28,
1886 in Belvidere, New Jersey. Nearly 100 subpoenas were issued. And
while the evidence against him was circumstantial, after a trial that
endured for nearly a month, James Titus was convicted and sentenced to
hang for the crime. His appeal and request for a new trial was denied.
Titus escaped the hangman's noose, suddenly
signing a 'confession' of guilt several months after his conviction.
Although he was allowed to live, James Titus never saw his wife again.
She died in November, 1904.
James Titus served 19 years for the 1886 murder of
Tillie Smith before he was paroled by the Court of Pardons and released
from prision on December 27, 1904. For the nearly fifty years that
followed, he lived ironically, in Hackettstown, amongst the same
neighbors and townsfolk who championed his conviction. James Titus died
in June 1952 and is buried in Union Cemetery, Hackettstown.
Unfortunately, no one will ever really know the truth about happened
that fateful night or if justice was truly served.
Remembering Tillie Today
The story of Tillie Smith lives on today, more
than 120 years after her brutal demise. A monument to her memory stands
in Hackettstown's Union Cemetery, constructed with the generous
donations from local and national benefactors. Unveiled on November 24,
1887, it is a lasting tribute to the young woman who died 'in defence
of her honor'.
In addition to the monument in Union Cemetery,
'Tillie', a play commissioned by the Centenary Theatre and written by
Jeanne Walker, recalled the events of the scandalous incident. Walker
did extensive research, reading the local and national newspaper
articles about the case and the 1,500 pages of the transcript of the
trial. Denis Sullivan, author of a book about Tillie, 'In Defense of
Her Honor', assisted Walker in locating sources. In addition to the
production, Centenary Theatre sponsored Tillie Walks, featuring actors
and actresses following her trail through town the night she was
And of course, there are the reported sightings of
Tillie's ghost by staff and students at the college...