Thomas Piper: Sensational Boston Belfry Killer Found

Last week, we met Rodney Alcala, the so-called Dating Game Killer. This week’s case takes us back to 1870s Boston, Massachusetts. It was there that Thomas Piper committed the crimes that caused the press to label him The Boston Belfry Murderer.

Thomas Piper

Thomas W. Piper was a Canadian born in Nova Scotia in 1849. Young Thomas did carpentry work on the family farm until he moved with his parents to Boston in 1866. There he held several jobs as a clerk. He was also an avid Baptist, which led the Warren Avenue Baptist Church to hire him as a sexton.

An undated photo of Thomas Piper
An undated photo of Thomas Piper

Piper had s kidney disorder that he self-medicated with laudanum. A popular “remedy” at the time, laudanum is a solution of opium in alcohol. Not surprisingly, the opium and alcohol “cure” gave him hallucinations. And unknown to his employers at the church, Piper had a brief career as an arsonist before graduating to murder.

Piper Commits Murder

It was December 5, 1873. Thomas Piper was walking to the church with two of his brothers when he complained of not feeling well. But instead of going home, he bought some opium, mixed it with alcohol, and drank it. Only then did he return home.

Some time later, a fire alarm rang. When the commotion died down, Piper was standing with a brother when they saw a servant girl, Bridget Landregan walking home. They went inside their house and Thomas said he was going to bed. However, he grabbed a shaft he’d sawed off a larger piece earlier and started to follow Landregan. He stalked her until she noticed him, at which point he hit her with the shaft and knocked her down. Then he hit her again, fracturing her skull.

A sensationalized contemporary drawing of Piper committimg murder. Mabel Young, the only victim killed in the church belfry, was a child, not the adult woman this drawing depicts.
A sensationalized contemporary drawing of Piper committimg murder. Mabel Young, the only victim killed in the church belfry, was a child, not the adult woman this drawing depicts.

At that point, Piper saw a man walking down the street. He bolted, climbing over a fence that ran parallel to a railroad line and escaped. Police arrested several men, including, Piper, but there was no evidence against any of them.

Thomas Piper Continues His Assaults

A year later, Piper met Mary Tyner, a prostitute. The two went to a saloon and had some drinks before going back to her place. They both fell asleep. Tyner was still asleep when Piper woke up. He took a hammer or similar object and hit her several times in the head with it. Tyner survived for a year after the attack but couldn’t identify her attacker. She spent the rest of her life in a lunatic asylum. Police extradited a former lover, Thomas Cahill, from Ireland but had to release him for lack of evidence. Ironically, Cahill himself was murdered after he returned to Ireland.

The Warren Avenue Baptist Church around the time of Young's murder
The Warren Avenue Baptist Church around the time of Young’s murder

The crime that was Piper’s undoing was the murder of five-year-old Mabel Young. It was May 23, 1875. After Mabel attended services at the church where Piper was a sexton, he lured her up into the church’s belfry. He promised to show her the pigeons. Instead, he hit her in the head several times with a cricket bat. He intended to rape her but, realizing she was still alive, moved her to another part of the belfry. Witnesses saw Piper leaping from the belfry and soon after found Mabel. She was still alive, but died from her injuries at 8:00 p.m. the following day.

Trial and Conviction

Piper’s first trial, which began on December 11, 1875, ended in a hung jury. Nine jurors voted to convict and three to acquit. He went on trial a second time on January 31, 1876. This time the jury was unanimous: guilty of murder.

The stress of the ordeal took its toll on Piper. He confessed to the murders of Young, Landregan, and another woman named Minnie Sullivan, and to the assault on Tyner. Moreover, he confessed to the arsons as well.

Piper appealed his death sentence but without success. At least 300 people attended his hanging on May 26, 1876, at the Suffolk County jail.

Epilogue

Piper is known to have committed the three murders, but he may have been responsible for other deaths not linked to him.

In 1920, the congregation of the Warren Avenue Baptist Church merged with the First Baptist Church on Commonwealth Avenue. They sold the building on the corner of Warren Avenue and Canton Street. In 1969, the city razed the building, eventually replacing it with a small park, Hayes Park.

Hayes Park. The scupture is called West Canton Street Child by Kahil Gibran
Hayes Park. The scupture is called West Canton Street Child by Kahil Gibran

The Boston Belfry Murder is one of the crimes featured in Murder & Mayhem in Boston by Christopher Daley.

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