When Jesse Diehl came to Nashua in pursuit of his lover, he ended up killing a man
So unsavory a character was the outlaw Jesse Diehl, the recent arrival in Nashua deemed by observers “a bold, desperate character in every particular,” that none of the police officers in his hometown of York, Pa. dared arrest him “for fear of getting killed someday.”
Diehl, also spelled Deihl in some accounts, has the infamous distinction of committing the first murder in Nashua since its incorporation as a city in June 1853 – and, according to this writer’s research, making it one of the more brazen and sensational murders the city has ever seen.
Murders of course are never fun, nor their details pleasurable to hear or read. But some, once the backstory and other circumstances behind the crime are known, can be downright fascinating.
Add to that the fact this crime, which shattered an otherwise quiet, pleasant mid-May Sunday afternoon, took place in one of most popular gathering spots in downtown Nashua – Railroad Square – and you have what our predecessor-in-name, The Nashua Daily Telegraph, described as triggering “Great Excitement in the City.”
I came upon this most riveting account ripped from the pages of Nashua history like I come upon most treasures I find: While searching for something else.
In this case, it was a long, detailed Telegraph story about the demolition around 1905 of the “old police station” beneath the old City Hall at 120 Main St. that led me to the Jesse Diehl case.
Also being demolished was the “brick and ironwork” holding cells, referred to by the Telegraph as “these old dungeons of confinement.”
In a bit of editorializing, the reporter mused, “could these old brick walls tell the story of the wild debauches of those who have been confined within their portals, it would be one of sorrowful details,” he wrote, giving as an example the case of “the noted Jesse Diehl.”
Nose to the ground, I set out on the trail of this Jesse Diehl character – and found him and his antics sullying a pleasant, law-abiding Nashua back in the early part of 1873.
The tough guy who racked up arrests in York, Pa. for assault with intent to kill, assault and battery, threatening to kill and firearms violations but “never paid the cost,” the Telegraph wrote, Diehl had come to Nashua to try and “make up” with a woman, his apparent girlfriend, who fled York for Nashua to escape his beatings and cruelty.
The woman, named Matti Reauter, was “only at peace for two our three weeks” when Diehl found her in Nashua.
Reauter was a “a fine lady” before she met Diehl, the Telegraph reported. In York, she was known as Matti Lewis, and Diehl, as “Matti Lewis’s Man.” They ran a bagnio – a brothel – and were “instrumental in the disgrace and ruin of several young women of promise.”
In the several months before she fled York, she sported “black eyes and bruises … the result of his cruelty.”
She doesn’t appear to be involved in the murder, however; at least not directly. Diehl, the Telegraph wrote, “kept a notoriously bad place on Second Street” while in Nashua.
On the day of the murder, Diehl, age 35, and another man, Robert E. Blair, tried to hire a team (horse and carriage) at Whittemore’s stable in Railroad Square, but were denied because they were drunk.
They went to the nearby Indian Head House – where the First Church stands now – but all teams were out. They then accosted a citizen and tried to talk him into lending his team to them, but he refused – in what may have been Nashua’s first attempted horse team-jacking.
The duo eventually went back to Whittemore’s and sat down at the bar. Moments later, witnesses heard a commotion, and the bartender heard Blair say something like “I am not afraid of you,” the Telegraph reported.
“Big-deal” Diehl took off his coat, threw it upon the bar, pulled “an ugly six-shooter” from his hip pocket and “thrust it into Blair’s face.” But just as quickly as Diehl drew his gun he put it down.
“However, it appears he changed his mind, for without a moment’s warning he again drew it and discharged one of the chambers into the forehead of Blair,” who fell “heavily upon the floor.”
Diehl walked out, the Telegraph reported, but was detained in the stables until police arrived. Doctors examined Blair and agreed the wound was fatal; he died a few hours later.
By then, “the area was thronged” by 500 people curious to know what was going on. Many, the reporter wrote, had just left church services when the commotion unfolded.
Granted access to the jail area to interview Diehl, the Telegraph reporter found him drunk and at times incoherent. A “short, thick-set fellow … quick in temper,” Diehl told the reporter Blair “called him a vulgar name and drew a pistol” on Diehl, which Diehl “couldn’t stand for so he shot him.”
Diehl asked the reporter of Blair was dead, then asked for a glass of liquor. “He appeared to realize only partially the enormity of his crime,” the reporter wrote.
Meanwhile, Ms. Reauter and two other women, one of them her daughter, the other an illiterate young woman from New Brunswick, were confined in nearby cells and spent most of the reporter’s visit with Diehl laughing.
Blair, who was 33 when he was killed, was described as “a genial young man” and “faithful workman” whose only downfall appears to be hanging around with Diehl and drinking too much.
A native of Roylston, N.C., Blair joined “the rebel army,” the Telegraph wrote, but at some point deserted, went North and joined the Union Army, for reasons unknown.
He landed in Amesbury, Mass., then came to Nashua a year before he was killed, the Telegraph wrote.
Sadly, his father, an ardent supporter of the Southern cause, disowned Blair after learning he not only “deserted the Southern flag” but joined the enemy as well.
Not long before he was killed, Blair, wishing to visit his mother, wrote to his father “requesting his consent” for such a visit.
“I never wish to see you again, and you cannot cross my threshold unless over my dead body,” his father wrote, the Telegraph reported.
“Blair brooded over the letter, spoke of it with friends, and his his grief went on a spree,” likely a reference to drinking.
As for Diehl, he ended up pleading guilty to a charge of second-degree murder in September 1873, about five months after the murder.
He was sentenced to 30 years in State Prison, and a short time later “was taken to Concord on the 4 o’clock train” from the Manchester courthouse.
Matti Renauter, or Matti Lewis, “seemed greatly relieved” Diehl was allowed to plead guilty to the second-degree murder charge, the Telegraph reported as a footnote to the case.
“We hear she (found) consolation in the fact that she know knows where he is,” the reporter wrote, “and (will now) indulge in the hope of meeting him in the hereafter.”
Dean Shalhoup’s column appears Sundays in The Telegraph. He may be reached at 594-1256, firstname.lastname@example.org or@Telegraph_DeanS.
Editor’s Note: Due to the winter storm and early deadlines Dean Shalhoup’s column is being published in the today;s edition of The Telegraph. His column will resume its normal Sunday schedule next week.