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Love Hurts

The last man hanged by Contra Costa County was the dupe of a married woman who was less 1870s farm wife than femme fatale.


A storm raged through the county the week in January 1874 that Marshall Martin was to die on the gallows. The night before his hanging, Martin decided to come clean about his role in the axe murder of his boss, Valentine Eischler, who ran a small farm near the banks of Marsh Creek.

Martin called a minister to his cell in the Martinez courthouse and poured out his miserable story. He didn’t think it was fair that he would be the only one to—literally—take the fall for the crime.

Hacking Eischler to death on November 16, 1872, had not been his idea. "I did the striking," he claimed, "but she was the cause for it, the whole cause for it."

"She" was Elizabeth Eischler, who, before becoming Martin’s lover, was Valentine’s wife. "She wrought my mind up to such a pitch that I did not know what I was doing," he sadly explained.

History, fiction, and film are full of saps coaxed by women into helping them dispatch inconvenient husbands. Martin certainly ranks high in the chronicles of sapdom. He risked everything to win a woman, and all he got for his trouble was death—and an inglorious distinction as the last man executed by Contra Costa County.

In autumn 1872, Martin didn’t have a lot going for him. The Tennessee native had failed to hold onto the $5,000 he earned during the California Gold Rush, and he had drifted from job to job fishing and working on farms around the Sacramento River before Eischler hired him as an assistant on his land where he raised wheat and pigs.

Like his boss, Martin was in his 50s. He also had a slight build, and, as the local newspaper reported, an inferior "grade of intelligence as well as personal comeliness." The attentions of a younger woman must have been irresistible.

The newspapers don’t reveal whether Elizabeth—like her husband either Danish or German by birth—looked like a femme fatale. Accounts say she was 45 to 50 years old and suggested she possessed a fierce desire for a better life. It’s also unclear how or when she started up with Martin. But by November 1872, she had him hooked, telling him how much she liked him and promising money to keep him "like a gentleman."

The rains were late that month, frustrating farmers who needed a good storm to soften the earth for plowing. Elizabeth also was on edge, but not because of the hard earth. She was plotting to bump off her husband.

Her first plan was to poison Valentine, but he passed on Elizabeth’s stewed pumpkin laced with arsenic. She devised two other schemes to poison Valentine, but those failed because Martin temporarily lost his nerve and convinced Elizabeth to not go through with it. Yet another plan—for Martin to knock Valentine off a wagon and run over his head—hit a snag when a neighbor decided to ride along with them. Then Elizabeth deemed that Martin should shoot Valentine during a Saturday shopping trip to Antioch. But Martin was doubtful. "If I was to do such a thing," he told her, "God Almighty would condemn me all my lifetime."

"What does God Almighty care for [Valentine]?" Elizabeth spat back. "He thinks there is no God, nor angel, nor hell. He is nothing but an old hog."

Elizabeth was peeved, to say the least, when Martin and the "old hog" returned from Antioch late that afternoon. Valentine didn’t help matters when he called his wife a "bitch," and badgered her about fixing supper. Martin found his girlfriend sobbing in the kitchen, where she accused him of not loving her and of being weak. "Now is your chance," Elizabeth said.

Fired up by her pleas—and "the devil"—Martin armed himself with an axe, found Valentine outside, and struck him three times, once over the eye. Elizabeth ran out of the house, and the lovers dragged a still-breathing Valentine into the stable. Martin finished the job with a final blow to Valentine’s forehead.

Elizabeth took it from there, washing the blood off the axe, telling Martin how to rake over the dirt where Valentine fell, and concocting the cover-up story. Ride over to inform the neighbors, she said, and claim horses trampled him. But before sending Martin off, Elizabeth threw her arms around him and purred, "Come kiss me, darling."

The cover-up didn’t take. The neighbors could immediately see that the gashes on Valentine’s head weren’t from horse kicks. They alerted the sheriff, and soon the lovers were in custody. Martin immediately turned on Elizabeth, claiming she had swung the axe, a version he stuck to until the eve of his execution. She, meanwhile, was overcome by "symptoms of frenzy" and "wild and incoherent ravings." Martin was eventually tried and convicted of murder, but Elizabeth avoided trial by being declared insane.

"That woman deserves 10 times as much to die," proclaimed Martin in the minutes before a shroud was dropped over his face and a noose slipped around his neck.

The horror surrounding Valentine’s murder continued when Martin’s body dropped through the gallows’ trapdoor—and his head popped off. Still in its shroud, the head landed 10 feet from where Martin’s lifeless trunk lay on the ground in a pool of blood.

The coroner absolved the executioners for the decapitation, blaming it on Martin’s small frame and the "soft and flabby muscular development" of his neck. It would be comforting to think that the gruesomeness of Martin’s death prompted policy changes that made him the last man executed by the county. Some newspaper editorial protests did follow, but it turns out that a combination of chance and decisions at the state level ended capital punishment in Contra Costa. While Contra Costa had its share of barroom shoot-outs and fatal land disputes over the next decade, none were heinous enough or premeditated in a way that justified a death sentence, says local historian William Mero. Finally, in 1891, the state assumed responsibility for all executions.

As for Elizabeth? It turns out that Martin’s pleas for her to suffer for the crime were heeded, at least by fate. Elizabeth wound up with neither the farm nor her freedom. Even before the trial, she was shipped off to a "lunatic" asylum in Stockton. Just eight years after Martin was executed, she died.

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