Albion physician carried out last execution in Madison County

Posted 9 September 2014 at 12:00 am

Provided photo – In this photograph at Cazenovia Town Hall, Dr. Stephen M. Potter is seated on the right – circa 1860s.

By Matthew Ballard
Co-director of Cobblestone Museum

Physicians, sworn to uphold the Hippocratic Oath, rarely take the life of a person intentionally. Instead, they take in their hands the lives of their patients with the sole intent of preserving the person’s physical wellbeing and health. Yet one of Albion’s earliest practicing physicians was forced to deliberately end a man’s life in 1854.

Stephen M. Potter was born Oct. 6, 1794 at Westport, Mass., the son of Benjamin Potter and Amy Manchester. Benjamin was all but a young man at the outbreak of the Revolution in 1775, nonetheless Stephen’s grandfather faithfully served the fledgling nation as a seaman aboard the brigantine “Hazard” under command of John Foster Williams.

Stephen followed in his grandfather’s footsteps and enlisted with the 98th Regiment of New York Militia during the War of 1812, serving as a private in Capt. Plinney Draper’s company under the command of Col. Christopher Clark. Potter was paid $6.70 for his service in October and November of 1814 at Smith’s Mills, receiving his discharge on Nov. 17 of that same year.

Around 1817, Stephen married his first wife, Miss Mary “Polly” Moore and commenced his studies in medicine at Manlius, NY under his brother-in-law, Dr. Henry Buell Moore. With this marriage Polly gave birth to their daughter, Mary Louise. After Polly’s death on July 29, 1823, Stephen remarried to Huldah Collins in another short-lived marriage. Dr. Potter buried his wife at Mt. Albion Cemetery in 1833, leaving an adjacent plot for himself when his time on this earth came to an end.

In 1838, Dr. Potter was once again united in marriage, this time to Ann Harding, the widow of Lewis Crittenden who was killed by a falling tree at Jackson, Mich. in 1833. With this marriage he became the step-father of Sarah Ann Crittenden who would later marry Dr. Thomas Cushing of Barre on December 27, 1848. Ann gave birth to Stephen’s first son, Louis Albert Potter, on October 10, 1839 in Albion.

It was shortly after the birth of his son that Stephen decided to return to Madison County where he settled in Cazenovia. His time in Orleans County was short, but Dr. Potter was considered a respectable and kind gentleman whose presence was felt beyond the practice of his profession.

Dr. Potter became a highly regarded citizen of Madison County, receiving the nod from the Democratic Party for his first run at political office. Representing Madison County, Dr. Potter was elected as an assemblyman to the 69th New York State Legislature in 1846; a position he held for one term. It was in 1852 that he received the vote of confidence from his fellow citizens of Madison County when he was elected to serve as county sheriff. Serving three terms, Dr. Potter was involved in one of the most significant criminal cases in the history of the county.

In October of 1853, the murder trial of John Hadock of Madison County was brought before the court by William E. Lansing, the county district attorney at the time. Hadock was accused of murdering Mary Gregg, a flirtatious newlywed who had convinced Hadock that she was interested in marriage. When Gregg married another man, an enraged Hadock took extreme action. After the body of Gregg was discovered, it was determined through the work of Dr. Potter that Hadock had shot Gregg through an open window.

After receiving a confession from Hadock, it was deemed that he was not mentally fit to receive his sentence at the gallows. After the issuance of a stay of execution, a jury was summoned by Sheriff Potter to determine Hadock’s mental state. Following two hours of deliberation, the jury could not reach an agreement and were thus dismissed. With no further action from Gov. Seymour, Sheriff Potter was legally required to carry out the duties of his office.

During these times, executions were carried out by the elected sheriff and this case would prove to be no different. At 11 a.m. on a Friday morning, Feb. 24, 1854, John Hadock was hanged from the gallows away from the prying eyes of local citizens. The hanging of Hadock represented the last legal execution to take place in Madison County, all at the hands of Dr. Stephen M. Potter.

Potter died Oct. 4, 1885 and is buried in Evergreen Cemetery at Cazenovia, NY.

For more on the Cobblestone Museum and its “Medicine at the Museum” exhibit and lecture series, click here.