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True Crime in 1834 - The Bristol Cradle Murder, Part 1

Updated: Mar 22, 2021

From Library of Congress

Sunday, 27 July 1834, was a typical sweltering summer day in Bristol township, Pennsylvania. It was the time for harvesting the ripening grain. Any small breeze would sway the sea of stalks, but provide little relief to the workers.

Knowing this, the reapers came early to Joshua Headley's farm in the cool of pre-dawn. They were all neighbors, among them were Daniel Headley, William Bradfield, John Wright and Aaron Cuttlehow.

The tool they used was a grain cradle, which was a scythe attachment that looked like a large claw. As the mower mowed a stroke, the grain would stack up in the cradle. At the end of the stroke, the mower could neatly lay the grain down in the windrow with all of the seed heads facing the same direction. Before the invention of the cradle, grain was harvested with a sickle. The harvester held handfuls of grain stalks as they cut and collected stalks of grain in neat bundles that were tied off or stacked in the field to dry. The invention of the scythe, roughly a sickle with a long handle, allowed people to mow and harvest without having to bend over. However, grain harvesting with a scythe was inefficient, as cut material fell in windrows in a haphazard way, which led to loss of grain. The invention of the grain cradle allowed mowers to harvest grain efficiently and more quickly.

A Cradle, Bucks County Historical Society Image

They fell to their task with great zeal, their strong, sinewy arms swinging the cradles. Soon the grain lay beneath the simmering sun in endless windrows, ready to be gathered, tied in bundles and thrown into shocks.

Weary and hungry, they went to Joshua's house for breakfast. As they turned into the lane, they saw Joseph Blundin approaching. John Wright hailed him and asked him why he did not have his cradle.

"I would have brought it if I'd known," he replied amiably.

Joshua asked him to join them for breakfast and to have a drink of rum. After he finished his cup of rum, Joseph said he would go home and fetch his cradle.

The reapers were returning to the field when Joseph joined them, his cradle over his arm. They worked steadily, stopping only for a sip of rum or apple whiskey to wet their parched throats. High good humor prevailed with the glow of the rum and the pleasant camaraderie. They finished Joshua's field in mid-morning. His father, Samuel Headley, had oats to be cut as well so they all went there and made such short work of it that they had finished by noon.

Israel Wright, an ailing neighbor, said that he would be obliged if they would mow his field, which they agreed to do directly after they finished their dinner. They separated into two groups, one going to Joshua Headley's and the other to his father Samuel's. Joseph trudged home with his cradle and returned shortly without it and ate at the elder Headley's home with Bradfield, John Wright and Aaron Cuttlehow, enjoying a hearty and agreeable meal.

Bradfield playfully snatched a pie from off the kitchen table and ran of the house with it. Joseph and Aaron chased after him. Aaron picked up an old shoe from the yard and aimed it at Bradfield, but it hit Joseph instead, who retaliated with a hefty rock that struck Aaron, quickly raising a lump on his head. Aaron ran back into the house crying and sat for a while with his hands pressed against the painful bump. When it had eased, he jumped up and rushed at Joseph, swinging wildly. Aaron wanted to fight, but Samuel stopped him.

With the disturbance settled, they set out to cradle Israel Wright's oats. Joseph turned to go home, but Samuel persuaded him to go and get his cradle again. He promised Joseph the loan of his wagon to take his wife on an errand afterward if he rejoined the reapers. Once more, Joseph plodded across the fields to retrieve his cradle. The men had cut two thirds of the grain by the time he returned and were taking a little break to enjoy a round of drinks. Joseph and Bradfield had a race to finish the field and when Bradfield beat him, Joseph was angry.

Aaron, who was still itching for a fight, stepped up and said to let him at Joseph, that he still owed him for hitting him with the stone. After a few heated words, Aaron said that if Joseph would clear him of the law, he would thrash him. Joseph said he would and the fight was on. Joseph dodged Aaron's first blow, then Aaron caught him around the neck, threw him to the ground and stuck him three or four times on the side of his head. Samuel intervened and Aaron ceased his blows. Two of the men helped Joseph up, but he was too weak to stand and his knees gave way under him. Bradfield and Aaron held him on his feet until his head cleared.

Shortly after that, Joseph shouldered his cradle and started for home, paying no heed to the men who urged him to ride on the wagon. He was asked to ride twice, but refused and said, angrily, that he would walk. He had been severely beaten by Aaron and was emotionally distressed by the fight. Instead of escalating the conflict, he attempted to walk home alone.

Joshua Headley, John Wright and Aaron followed some time after in a wagon. At the canal bridge, a short distance down the road, they overtook Joseph, walking slowly. Joshua stopped the team and again urged Joseph to ride. He made no reply, but glowering at Aaron, who was sitting on a rear seat, he raised his cradle from his shoulder and struck at him. Aaron tried to fend off the blow with his own cradle, but it was knocked from his hands as Joseph's implement cut through the fingers of Aaron's cradle, falling upon the ground. Aaron sprang from the wagon in an effort to make his escape from his assailant, but he stumbled and fell as he reached the ground.

As Joseph strode toward him, he tried to crawl out of reach, but his attacker continued his approach. Joseph raised his cradle high and brought the cradle down on Aaron's neck, the scythe cutting deep, blood spurting like a fountain. Joshua had cried out not to strike Aaron, but the sharp tool was too swift to be stayed in its descent.

Joshua rushed to Aaron, who was moaning, "Take it out, take it out." Samuel said to Joseph: "He will die," who replied, "Let him die." Joshua grasped the point, John Wright took hold of the handle and, bracing his foot against Aaron's neck, withdrew it. He shouted to Aaron to jump up and run. Aaron tried to put up his hand to stop the gushing blood, but it dropped onto his chest as he breathed his last there by the roadside on a scorching summer afternoon in July.

Joseph, looking down on the man he had felled, suddenly seemed to realize the enormity of his act. He knelt by the fence and prayed, not for himself, but for the unfortunate Aaron Cuttlehow. Then he rose, shouldered his bloody cradle and crossed the canal bridge for home. He did not turn when William Booz's wagon came down the road bearing Aaron's body.


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