Crime Along the River: The Killing of Alfred Silverheels

Nunda Truth, Nov. 18, 1904

​Headline from The Castilian November 18, 1904
Caused the Murder of Dr. Alfred Silverheels the night of Sep.30.
James Jemison Accused Of the Murder by His Wife and Daughter,
Is Still at Large, but Authorities are Making Every Effort to Find Him.

In November 1904, the Castile postmaster received a letter from Tommy Silverheels inquiring as to the whereabouts of his brother, Alfred. The last Tommy knew, Alfred had been living in the Castile area for several months. He was concerned that Alfred had met with foul play since no one had heard from him in weeks. The last information the Seneca man had from his brother was that he was living near the Glen Iris, William P. Letchworth’s home. The postmaster notified Wyoming County Sheriff Richardson about the missing man, who began an investigation. The missing person inquiry soon reached the desk of the Indian Commissioner, J. O. Spencer in Salamanca, New York.

A few weeks before, Tilden Jemison had made a strange report to the commissioner, accusing his father, James of Silverheels’ murder. Although the commissioner had issued an arrest warrant for Jemison, he’d had no success in locating the fugitive, and he sent word to the sheriff about the situation.

The sheriff wasted no time in fetching Matilda, James Jemison’s wife, son Tilden, and daughter Laura from the Tonawanda Reservation. The trio confirmed the story of Silverheels’ demise. Richardson then took them to the small house near the dry bridge above the Glen Iris, along with two Seneca hunters to see if they could locate Silverheels’ remains.

They soon found the body of Alfred Silverheels in the garden buried among the potatoes. A stone boat had been dragged over the grave to help conceal it. Opening the shallow grave, they found Silverheels buried face down, strapped to what looked like bed slats, accompanied by a moldering loaf of bread at the man’s feet, a bag of tobacco, and some wood shavings (The bread, tobacco, and wood shavings were part of a traditional Seneca burial). Laura and Matilda directed law enforcement to the riverbank below the Glen Iris and there they found Silverheels’ clothes scattered amongst Letchworth’s garbage. (Sorry—garbage was tossed down to the riverbank in the old days.) Dr. L. C. Broughton of Castile performed the autopsy, determining that the unfortunate Silverheels had been shot in the back, buckshot spraying through his heart and lungs, causing his immediate death.

Tilden, Laura’s half-brother, who lived with his mother on the reservation most of the time, recounted visiting his father and helping dig potatoes in the farmhouse’s garden plot on October 7. He said the Jemison family had taken Silverheels into the household earlier in the year as they camped along the Genesee River. They made baskets to sell, and there was no trouble between them. When the weather turned colder, the vacant farmhouse provided a warm and secure place to spend the winter. When Tilden asked where Silverheels was now, Jemison replied, “I’ve scart him so that he’s gone to another country.”

James Jemison readily told his son about the shooting and where he’d buried Silverheels. Laura and Matilda then shared they’d been forced to help Jemison with the burial. Tilden swore his father warned them, saying, “If you tell—three of you will be killed.” Tilden further stated he knew his father had sold a shotgun to a man named Ed Christian on October 10. After the sale of the gun, his father left for Canada while Tilden, Laura, and Matilda returned to the safety of the reservation.

A manhunt was initiated for Jemison in Canada with a $100 reward offered by the Wyoming County Sheriff for his capture. The Jemison family sat in the Wyoming County Jail as material witnesses. The sheriff took no chances on his witnesses disappearing as the law attempted to discover the truth. It didn’t take long to find Jemison who was hiding out in Caledonia, Ontario on a reservation. On November 22, 1904, a heavily armed posse of provincial officers took Jemison into custody without incident, surprising him at the farmhouse where he was staying.

The newspapers reported Jemison was a large man, a towering 6’ 3” and 250 pounds. That was quite an exaggeration since the state prison log records his height at 5’ 9 3/4” and 187 pounds. However, Canadian authorities took no chances, training their guns on the suspect when he opened the door. He was manacled and hauled away to a Canadian cell to await extradition to the United States, which didn’t take long.

Wyoming County District Attorney J.N. Knight promptly received the desired murder indictment, and the trial was docketed for January 1905. The highly publicized trial captured the attention of the media and public alike. Crowds filled the courthouse each day to hear the scandalous story. The court provided a Seneca translator for Jemison, which added to the exotic atmosphere of the trial for the onlookers.

Testimony soon brought to light that Albert Silverheels, a man in his fifties, had been carrying on an intimate relationship with Laura, who was only sixteen. Her father had demanded that Silverheels marry the girl legally, and the bad blood between the men grew after Silverheels refused. Jemison also became suspicious of Silverheels as he observed his interactions with his wife and daughter. Mr. Jemison believed the good “doctor” was flagrantly cuckolding him. Anger and jealousy continued to grow during September 1904.

On September 30, after an especially ugly day of Jemison drinking and fighting with Matilda about her lack of morals and cooking skills, Silverheels apparently inserted himself into the situation. When Silverheels went to the kitchen to check on Matilda, Jemison took his shotgun and blasted him in the back.

The jury found Jemison guilty of second-degree manslaughter and he was sentenced to ten years at Auburn Prison. The district attorney was disappointed by the verdict, hoping for a first-degree murder conviction. Surprisingly, upon reflection the judge and many others felt the sentence was too harsh, and a successful petition was presented a couple of years later which reduced James Jemison’s sentence to five years.

In April 1910 at age 48, Jemison was released on parole and returned to Castile. He went to work for Albert Preston, who lived near the farmhouse where the crime occurred. Jemison had certainly improved himself while incarcerated. He learned to read and write while at Auburn, and he’d also become a shoemaker. He disappears from the records in 1910, the federal census being the last record I’ve found, which places him as a hired man with the Prestons. No further mention of his children, their mother, or Matilda, Jemison’s second or third wife was found.

At the time of the murder, it was reported that James Jemison was a descendant of Mary Jemison, which from my research is entirely possible. On a personal note, because I’ve been fascinated by this case, my husband and I took a hike deep into the woods near the dry bridge a couple of years ago. We found the remains of the farmhouse’s foundation, which is almost completely swallowed up in the undergrowth—fading away with time.

​The Wyoming County Times
The Castilian
Randolph Register
The Western New Yorker
Rochester Democrat & Chronicle
Buffalo Evening News
1905 New York Census
1910 U.S. Census
New York Auburn Prison Records

Below are snapshots of the Auburn Prison Log when Jemison was admitted. He was prisoner 28235.

New York, Auburn Prison Records
New York, Auburn Prison Records
Remains of foundation Photo: D. Wallace
Remains of foundation Photo: D. Wallace

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