2. A Landmark Case at Flushing Town Hall Determined Men Could No Longer Kill Their Wife’s Lovers

Crowds in front of Flushing Town Hall during the trial of Captain Peter Hains Jr. and Thornton Hains Jenkins. Photo courtesy Flushing Town Hall archives

In the Victorian era, crimes of passion were generally acquitted in the court of law through the defense of “Dementia Americana,” known also as “the unwritten law.” This temporary derangement of course lasted just long enough for husbands to kill their wife’s lover, a defense strategy most famously used successfully in the murder of architect Stanford White by Harry Thaw over the actress Evelyn Nesbit.

In a case that fascinated New York, Captain Peter Hains Jr., with assistance from his novelist brother Thornton Hains Jenkins, killed William Annis, a magazine editor and friend of Captain Hains, at the Bayside yacht club by shooting him eight times. Thornton Hains had written to Captain Hains while he worked abroad about orgies allegedly happening at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn involving the Captain’s wife, Claudia Libbey. The Captain became convinced over the next two years that an affair was indeed happening, contrary to his wife’s denials.

So convinced was the Captain of his ability to get away with the crime, he “sat on a bench and waited calmly for the police to arrive,” reports the New York Times. Thornton Hains tried a defense of “dual insanity,” or folie à deux in French meaning that Captain Hains’ derangement had been contagiously spread to him, also temporarily, of course.

In a dramatic turn of events, the jurors at Flushing Town Hall convicted Captain Hains of manslaughter, and he received an eight year sentence at Sing Sing while Thornton Hains was acquitted. The New York Times writes that the shift of opinion the case had on law made quite an impact, and that “Thornton Hains was probably the last man in New York State acquitted on the grounds of ‘the unwritten law,’ albeit vicariously.”