Meriden Y’s Men: “The Rockland Murder: A Cold Case from 1878”

Meriden Y’s Men: “The Rockland Murder: A Cold Case from 1878”

It was in 1878 in the small village of Rockland, a beautiful shore community of Madison, Conn., that a young Mary Stannard ventured into the nearby woods to pick blackberries for a pie. Her body was found later that day, her throat slit ear-to-ear, with her murder igniting an intense and emotional search for her killer.

Speaking to 30 Y’s Men of Meriden via Zoom on Jan. 5, author and Guilford Town Historian Joel Helander revealed intriguing details about this still cold case that fascinated the news media throughout America. Stannard, shy but attractive and working as a domestic, had lived with her father (who found her body) and her illegitimate child.

The primary murder suspect: the Rev. Herbert Hayden, popular pastor at the local Methodist Church. Within two days of her death, local gossip began circulating about a relationship between the two, quickly morphing into angry crowds shouting, “hang him.” Stannard, previously convinced she was pregnant once again, purportedly told her sister that the pastor was the father.

Hayden underwent a hearing in Madison but was then released. But then the body was exhumed 12 days after Stannard’s death, the resulting autopsy finding a large amount of arsenic in her stomach. Hayden had previously admitted he had purchased a large amount of arsenic in Durham on the day of the murder. Speculation mounted that the minister had given her the arsenic (perhaps telling her it was a medicine that would terminate the pregnancy) but it did not work quickly enough, so a knife was used to complete the killing. Of interest: the autopsy also showed Stannard was not pregnant, but instead had developed a cyst on her right ovary.

Hayden was re-arrested and spent one year in jail awaiting trial at Superior Court by jurors who split after three days’ deliberation with one guilty and 11 not guilty findings, resulting in a hung jury and release of the suspect. Forensics experts from Yale University became heavily involved in the trial (seemingly the first time in America’s history,) perhaps showing a degree of anti-Methodist bias by the mostly Congregational professors. But the minister was popular, he had a beautiful wife, and the arsenic evidence was quite complicated for the jurors to comprehend.

Hayden never returned to the ministry, becoming a grocer and carriage maker. Thirty-two years after the trial, a bone-handled knife was found hidden in the wall of the minister’s former house, a knife that Helander displayed to today’s audience. Helander believes the minister was clearly guilty.

For further information about the Y’s Men of Meriden, go to or call 203-238-7784.

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